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Resolution by greengecko

Format: Novel
Chapters: 83
Word Count: 766,624
Status: WIP

Rating: 15+
Warnings: Mild Language, Mild Violence

Genres: Drama, General, Action/Adventure
Characters: Harry, Ron, Hermione, McGonagall, Snape, Shacklebolt, Tonks, Arthur, Ginny, OC
Pairings: Snape/OC, Other Pairing

First Published: 04/03/2007
Last Chapter: 11/13/2012
Last Updated: 11/13/2012


Sequel to Resonance and Revolution. Harry enters his second year as an Auror Apprentice. Snape's wedding looms, and Harry's odd new powers mature, creating mayhem, perilous temptations, and opportunities to gain real wisdom.

Chapter 1: On the Coast
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Introduction to Resolution

This is the third story in a trilogy that begins with the stories Resonance and Revolution, which I would strongly recommend reading before this. You can find them on this website by clicking on the author name somewhere on this page.

To quickly catch you up: Harry is nineteen in this story and an Auror Apprentice. He lives with his adoptive father, Severus Snape, in the mythical village of Shrewsthorpe. As the story opens, the characters are dealing with the aftermath of the most recent prophecy and the destruction that accompanied it.

- 888 -

He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.
- 888 -

You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star.

-- Friedrich Nietzsche

- 888 -

Chapter 1 — On the Coast

Harry lay sleeping with the warm breeze languidly flowing over his skin. A magically enlarged umbrella stretched over him, reducing the hot sun to manageable brightness. Red, blue and green bands of light discolored his chest and more obviously, the white bandages encasing his left arm.

"Do you really have to wake him?" Candide asked from behind oversized sunglasses when Snape glanced at his pocket watch. Snape did not reply, simply rose from the awkwardly low beach chair and crossed the white rocks. Unlike the others, who had donned swimwear, he wore shorts and a white starched shirt with the sleeves rolled up.

Snape tapped Harry on his unbandaged shoulder, saying, "It is time again."

Harry woke slowly, groggy from the heat. It was as though he had been dreaming his surroundings and some time was required to adjust to the coincidental reality. Rubbing his eyes, he asked, "It's 2:00 already?"

"Yes," Snape said, collecting his shoes to change out of the ridiculous plastic things they had needed to purchase from a vendor.

"If you're coming back, I'll stay with the stuff," Candide said, putting aside the fat magazine she held.

"We'll come back," Harry assured her. If nothing else, he wanted to finish his nap. He tugged a shirt on but skipped buttoning it, and instead ran his fingers through his sweat-damp hair. The sunlight sparkling on the water made him squint and he gratefully turned away from it to follow Snape up the beach.

The pervasive scent of briny water was stronger inside the small hotel room. Snape selected from the supplies spread out on the tiny dresser. Harry looked around at his things layering the room and considered that he was going to have to make some space when Ron arrived the next day. He held still while the current bandage was unwound with care because they had to reuse it.

"It is doing much better," Snape observed. "Your forearm is almost completely healed."

Harry gave the remaining wounds a closer look. The skin was almost normal, just lacked hair. "Well, I have been taking it easy, finally." While his arm was being treated he said, "Thank Merlin the Healer let me go."

"I believe after you shrugged when he threatened to remove all the flesh from your arm upon your return, should that be necessary, he could not argue further."

Harry spied his Auror books on the marble window sill. They felt farther away than two yards. "I needed a break more than an arm."

"We all did," Snape agreed, while methodically rewinding the old bandage.

Harry gave him more scrutiny. "How are you doing?" When Snape made a non-committal noise, Harry asked, "You're not having second thoughts, are you?"

"What sane person could not have second thoughts about marriage?" Snape returned with some sharpness. "Let's arrange one for you, shall we? See how you cope."

Harry chuckled and moved to put his shirt back on. He felt revived after being out of the sun and his eyes had relaxed in the dimmer light. Pushing his shoulders back to bolster himself to return outside he said, "It's nice in here, but we should get back."

"Mad dogs and Englishmen," Snape commented.

At Harry's questioning look, he prompted toward the door, "Go on."

"You two are good together, you know," Harry said as they walked down the narrow staircase of the hotel. A stiff breeze blew in off the Mediterranean, ruffling the promotional brochures lined up on a side table across from the front desk. Snape dropped the rubber-edged, heavy brass key on the desk as they walked by it. Outside, the wind bullied along the curved, cobblestone street and on the shady side it was almost chilly, but as they reached the quay the heat and light poured on once again.

Harry returned to his former seat after assuring Candide that he was fine. He clasped his hands over his abdomen, and stared out at the red and white ferry boat passing by just below the horizon. Despite the high-pitched squeals of children playing nearby, he fell back to sleep.

"Can we have pizza again?" Harry asked later, when they were packing up their things with surreptitious glances in all directions to ensure no one noticed them shrinking the umbrellas back down to their normal size.

"Again?" Candide asked at the same time as Snape said, "Whatever you wish."

They picked their way over the craggy, bleached rock and around potholes filling with the tide. On the road, the locals were reopening shops for the evening, rolling up gates and unlocking glass doors. Pizza was nearly the only option for anyone wanting to eat before 10:00 p.m.

After a quick clean up they were settled in at a small place open wide to the pavement. While they waited for their order, Harry watched bicycles roll by and the occasional car, that he instinctively believed must have been charmed to fit on so narrow a road. Frequent horn honking—which echoed violently in the canyon of stone buildings—seemed a requirement of driving through the narrows of the old town.

Harry sighed. He had finally relaxed and found some perspective on recent events. A glance at Snape's hooked profile reminded him how tenuous life was, but he had grip on that now, having overcome bad odds once again. It made him feel more confident that should he need to, he could force things to work out again.

Pizzas arrived. Harry downed two slices in rapid succession, wondering how he could have grown so hungry for not having moved all day. When her salad arrived, Candide pushed her remaining pizza in Harry's direction.

"Still growing, I see," she teased him.

Harry's mouth was full, so he did not reply right away. Snape filled in with, "It's the Thewsolve."

"Is it?" Harry asked after swallowing a gooey lump of cheese.

Snape nodded and Harry moved to consolidate her pizza with his on his plate. He ate another piece while the two of them sat comfortably across from one another, sharing a second beer. Harry felt comfortable with this too and mildly regretted that Ron was arriving the next day because it would disrupt the rhythm the three of them had settled into.

By the time they were walking back to the hotel, though, the thrumming of the various small night clubs vibrated through the night air, calling him to spend some time out late. He had decided to wait for Ron before exploring the night scene and looked forward to his arrival on that account.

Instead of exploring on this own, Harry left the others and went to his own room to attempt some assigned reading. He propped a book on the windowsill in the glow of a streetlamp and sat on a chair, hunkered over the pages. Outside the open shutters, motor scooters whined, bicycles dinged, conversations outside the shops drifted up to the window; all of it fortified by the unceasing wash of the sea waves surrounding the peninsula. As lulling and relaxing as it was, it made Ministry evidence handling policy a rather meaningless, or at least remote, topic.

Harry read as long as he could bear to and then lay on the bed. The plaster above him had an organic feel as though he were inside a big handmade clay pot rather than a building. Harry imagined his own room at home and considered that he could probably just return there in an instant. At Candide's insistence, they had come by aeroplane, but now that Harry knew where he was, he could slip into the Dark Plane and home again with little effort. The thought made him feel less distant from home than he wanted to actually be.

On the other hand, he could go visit Tonks, which sounded highly appealing and indeed his core warmed at the thought. Except she did not know that he had worked out a kind of Apparition to go such distance and Snape did not want him to tell anyone who did not absolutely need to know. But Harry would not mind her learning about it, and he could spend a few hours with her—if she were not on duty—and return back and Snape would not know the difference. Harry mostly resisted because afterward he would truly not feel properly separated from home the way one on a holiday should be.

As he mused upon this, a knock sounded on the door and it opened. Harry sat up suddenly; he had forgotten about his next treatment and was grateful that he had not gone anywhere.

As Snape worked at unwrapping his arm, he said, "I believe this is the last treatment your forearm will need."

"Good, I want to go out to the clubs tomorrow night with Ron," Harry said.

"Wear the sling in that case."

"I was hoping to hide the bandages altogether under a long-sleeve shirt."

"Then you will be tempted to use the arm, which you should not do. Observe how well it is healing now that you are resting it."

Harry could not argue with that, the streaks of pinkish new flesh were otherwise perfectly formed. "I can avoid using it," Harry insisted.

"You will wear the sling or you will not go," Snape stated.

Harry took that in until his surprise passed. He sighed and propped his arm up to be rewrapped. "All right," he said, staring at the mirror over the dresser.

"Look at me," Snape said.

Harry did, but his mind was Occluded.

"You have grown far too good at that," Snape complained.

"I'll wear the sling," Harry said. "You're right, of course. Daft to have it not heal right because I wanted to go dancing one night."

Snape did not acknowledge Harry's reasoning, simply collected the supplies together into a sack and set it aside. He left Harry alone again and Harry returned to reading in the window, this time rereading a book on advanced double blocks. Conversation from the next room drifted in, and despite wanting to pull back out of hearing range, he held still.

"... the matter, Severus?" Candide asked.

"Nothing is the matter," Snape insisted. A chair scraped the floor. A scooter sounded in the distance, blotting out everything else, and Harry returned to his reading, nearly forgetting he could overhear if all else was quiet. Quiet descended again and between the calls of a nightingale Harry heard Snape saying in a low tone as though specifically not to be overheard, "There will come a time when he will simply cease to obey."

Harry forgot his book, certain he was topic of conversation.

Candide's voice came next, clearer over the low rumble of the waves, "He's very nearly nineteen," she said, as though that explained everything.

"It isn't his absolute age that matters, it is that his power is far ahead of his maturity."

Their voices were drowned out again. Harry ran his fingers through his salty hair, curled unusually in the humidity. He did not mean to concern Snape so much. He did not mean to be difficult. He was glad he had given in on the sling so easily and very glad he had not Apparated back home and gone missing. That narrowly missed possibility gave him a spark of panic. That he had even contemplated it supported Snape's assertion.

Snape's voice came through again. " . . . wish to control him. No one could control him. I merely am concerned that he may not submit even to guidance long enough to come to terms with his own power." His voice dropped, more to make a point than hide his voice. "He is extremely powerful."

Harry's skin prickled, even in the presence of the sultry evening breeze.

Snape continued, "At least he understands that he must hide his power, but I fear circumstances will continue to force him to reveal more of it." Silence fell and a chair moved again. "I am glad his power does not disturb you."

Again Candide's bell-clear voice, chastising: "He's a sweet young man, Severus. I think you're worrying too much."

Harry backed up, and carefully and silently pulled the windows nearly closed so the noise bounced off them instead of floating in. He took his book to bed and sat back with it, but he did not recall what he read after that.

Harry tried not to behave subdued the next day, but large thoughts weighed upon him that he could not shake off even with a bright sunny hot day at the shore ahead of him. He was glad to have something to plan. At breakfast he said, "Ron is supposed to come in by portkey a few miles up the coast. Then he is catching the bus."

"Where is he connecting again?" Candide asked, sounding doubtful.

"He wasn't sure. Said someone at the bank was going to let him use a private portkey but he hadn't figured out the best connection yet."

"He may not be in shape for nightclubs this evening," Snape said. "That distance by portkey is quite nauseating."

"He's here three days; he'll have time to recover."

When Ron arrived—after waiting four hours for a second portkey in St. Petersburg, and indeed looking peaked—Harry was glad for his company. As soon as they returned to the hotel, Ron fell straightaway onto his narrow bed and lay there moaning until Harry fetched him something from the chemists that Snape recommended.

Eager, Harry sat beside his friend on the bed while he drank the prescribed chalky liquid and asked, "Any chance you'll be ready to go out tonight?"

"Out?" Ron squeaked. "Like, to drink?"

"Well, you can have soft drinks," Harry said. "You can hear the music from here . . . hear it?" The dull thumping was indeed audible if one tuned into it.

"Loud music?" Ron whispered, sounding more pained.

"Tomorrow then," Harry conceded, wishing for a distraction other than his books, but seeing nothing for it. "I need to read more anyhow. Take a rest so you're better for tomorrow." He sat on his own bed and opened the top book to a random page. Ron fell back on the bed and, within minutes, began to snore.

The next day flew by. Each new day did this as though it were half the length of the last. Ron spent the day under a large black umbrella, wearing a broad-brimmed hat. He did not seem to mind keeping company with Snape as Harry had feared he might. The day was exceptionally hot and they swam frequently to cool off, especially mindful of the sea urchins hiding, black and spiky, among the crevices as they climbed out. Harry had a waterproofing spell on his bandage, but the edges of it still became wet and salty and by the afternoon, he was grateful to have it changed.

Harry sat on the bed, less tired from the sun than previously, while Snape bent to untie the wrappings. Snape's face had lost its unhealthy paleness and with his features relaxed, he did not look nearly so harsh and angular. He pulled out the tin of Thewsolve and Harry asked, "Any chance I can lose the bandage today?"

Snape shook his sun-lightened hair. "I expect you can lose it about the time we depart."

"Too bad we can't stay longer," Harry said, thinking less of getting around freely than that he thought Snape could use a bit more time to get used to being relaxed.

"We have much to do. Moving home, for example."

"That'll be nice," Harry confirmed.

"And you have a birthday party to plan, as well, I believe." He was rewrapping Harry's arm as he spoke.

"Hermione said she'd do it while we were gone." He picked up his wand and renewed the waterproofing. "I'm so glad it wasn't my right arm that got hurt. I think I'd go mad trying to cast with my left."

"I doubt it would slow you down for long," Snape said, stashing the supplies away.

Harry would have disregarded this comment, previously. He wanted to say something, to reassure his guardian, but did not want to give away that he had overheard anything. He held up the borrowed wand from the Ministry that he was using. It was short, only 9 inches, and made of ash wood. "This wand is really slowing me down," he commented as a distraction. "Although I like that it is easy to hide."

"I am surprised you did not replace it sooner."

"I keep hoping mine will turn up," Harry said, slipping the pale wand back into his pocket. He had been hoping this partly because it avoided the decision about whether to have one remade exactly the same.

Snape pulled a heavy wooden chair over and sat down facing Harry, as though detecting his ambivalence. He steepled his fingers and said in an oddly reassuring tone, "I sense there is some larger issue at work here."

Harry had a vision then, of Snape's years placating Voldemort. The careful phrasing and tone sounded too well practiced.

"What is the matter?" Snape then asked more pointedly, which broke the vision.

Harry decided it was best to stick with the first topic. "I sort of want a different wand now."

"That is understandable."

"But I want one that works as well."

"You are unlikely to find one to meet that criterion without duplicating the wood and core. You are a match for such a wand, as I understand it."

Harry frowned. "I bet if I cut Voldemort out of myself I could use a different one just as well."

Snape's dark gaze did not waver, but he held back on repeating what he already had firmly threatened in the past. "Do you still sense him?" he asked instead.

"I had a dream I was in prison the other night." Harry shrugged as though it was not important. "I don't know if it was just a dream or I was seeing out of his eyes." He had not planned on confessing this, but Snape's tone was persuasive, even knowing it was intended to be.

"If it happens again, do let me know."

"There isn't anything you can do about it," Harry pointed out.

Snape stood and returned the chair to the wall beside the window. "I wish to keep track. I certainly cannot help you if I do not know what is happening to you. With that in mind, they are going to wonder what became of us."

Ron and Harry headed out that night, following the siren call of the thumping music. Despite spending the day under a hat and dark umbrella, Ron appeared reddened as though he were stuck in a blush.

They quickly discovered that the clubs were far quieter in terms of other patrons than their loud music implied. So, at the third one, where only a few people gathered at the bar, he and Ron took their icy beers out on the balcony where they could talk. For an hour they talked of nothing in particular, a luxury Harry had not considered before. When times were bad, one could not afford to relax and speak of things lacking importance—not planning, not worrying, not plotting contingencies for the worst case—just idle thoughts expressed in no particular rush.

Ron, though, grew more serious when he spoke about Gringotts. "They've put me on a promotion track."

"That's great, Ron. Congratulations."

Ron shrugged. "It's a long-term track. It may never lead anywhere."

"It's already lead somewhere," Harry pointed out. "You said that only Goblins ever got promoted higher than where you are now in your department."

Ron flipped his tall beer bottle back and forth between his hands. "I heard rumors that they only did it because they realized I was friends with you."

"What?" Harry burst out. "Don't be ridiculous. I don't even have enough Galleons left in their bank to be interested in what they're doing with them."

"That's not the point," Ron argued. "They, well . . ." He trailed off.

"They think I'm dangerous," Harry filled in for him.

Ron nodded reluctantly. "That's my impression. They call it hedging their bets." At Harry's shake of the head, Ron said more strongly, "You got your Misfortuna Mutual pay-out on the spot for the house."

"How'd you know that?" Harry asked, certain he had not bothered to bore anyone with that information.

"I work with the people- goblins who process these things." He leaned forward to add, "Sometimes it can take a year to get gold on a claim."

Harry could not dispute that because Snape had already indicated that his living in the house had rapidly moved things along. In the middle of these annoyed thoughts, Ron said, "I wonder now if that's the reason they hired me in the first place."

Harry left his own concerns to lie. "Ron, don't be silly. If anything it's because Bill worked there already." Harry immediately wished he had not said that, but Ron came back with a hopeful, "You think so?"

"I'm certain," Harry confirmed, glad in this case that Ron thought nepotism an acceptable alternative.

Their beers had run out so Harry fetched two more, thoughts moving faster than being on holiday justified. "I don't think their promoting you, or putting you in line for it, has anything to do with placating me, Ron. Think about it. Imagine they believe I'm a dark wizard." Ron avoided his eyes as he sipped his beer, but Harry went on. "The last thing they would want is my best friend in a high position at the bank. Come on, that's what Voldemort was always doing: getting his Death Eaters into high positions so he could manipulate things more easily. Wouldn't they expect you to do things for me, not that I'd . . . what . . . leave them alone because you're my friend?" It occurred to Harry only after this speech that through the Dark Plane he could probably slip into any vault he wanted.

Ron shrugged, unconvinced. "That's just what I'm hearing."

Harry took a deep swig of his beer. "Two more days of holiday before we return to this nonsense. I plan to make the most of them."

Next: Chapter Two:

Harry tried a few spells. The hover came out strangely. The book floating before him visibly vibrated.

"That wand is looking for someone," Ollivander said, almost confessing. "I don't know whom. Doesn't like charms as well as hexes, in my practice with it at least."

Harry handed it back and another box was lifted off a healthy pile of two dozen still to go. "Coral tipped Palissandre," Ollivander announced as he held out a pastel pink wand streaked with brown. "The core is harpy feather."

Author Notes:

Chapter two will be at least two weeks. Sorry for the short chapter one but that was the only good cut-point between one and two. I have a lot written on this story but it is not contiguous. I need to connect the first chunk to the next big chunk before two is safe to give you. Next weekend I'll post my much-worked-over post book 7 one-shot. For status updates, please go to darkirony dot livejournal dot com.

Chapter 2: Yielding
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Chapter 2 — Yielding

Harry tried to convince Ron to join them in flying home, but Ron, while staring with discernible consternation at a photograph of an aeroplane in one of the travel magazines in their room, said, "I'd havta figure out how to use the telephone and everything to make arrangements. Doesn't seem worth it."

"I'll see you back home then," Harry said, stuffing the last of his expanded possessions back into his trunk.

"Yeah. I should do a bit of gift shopping before I go," Ron said, sounding relieved that Harry had let the suggestion drop.

Harry hefted his trunk and slapped Ron on the arm. "Later then."

Snape behaved better on the flight home since he was not so mystified by everything and he withheld further commentary on how enthralled Mr. Filch would be with the torturous seating. This time, he was only really curious about the silvery material composing the miniature pretzels' packaging. This generated the only very strange glance they received from the stewardess, when Snape refused to give up the empty package for rubbish because he was still examining it. Harry and Candide kept their noses in their respective reading and their smiles sucked between their teeth until this mini confrontation ended.

Snape glowered at the blue-uniformed staff for a while afterward. Harry leaned over and whispered, "No hexing."

"I was not considering it," Snape countered. He crossed his arms and huffed. "Even though there is no magical jurisdiction up here, eight miles in the air." He closed his eyes then as though staggered by the thought.

Harry laughed. "Should have brought a broomstick as backup."

"That would not help." Snape glanced across at the white oval of window. "You'd freeze to death before you had a chance to even attempt a warming charm."

Without looking up from the magazine propped on her tray, Candide asked, "Can we drop this topic? Some of us are closer to the window of frozen perpetual drop here."

"I'll switch seats with you," Harry said. "I like looking out the window."

She timidly glanced out while biting her lip. "You're on."

- 888 -

Harry returned to training with mixed emotions. He was simultaneously sad to be no longer relaxing but glad to be losing his boredom.

He arrived early on his first day back. The quiet atrium was almost completely repaired. The paintings and their gilt frames were brighter for the cleaning they had received and the gates sparkled, but the grand ceiling, while cleaned of the black streaks of spell burn, had yet to have the gold leaf reapplied in the gaps. What felt most normal was the echoing sound of the Ministry staff and visitors chatting amiably as they crossed paths in the vast open space.

In the corridor leading to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, Harry encountered a new face on an unusually tall body, standing uneasily outside the training room door.

"Tridant," Harry said, more a statement than a greeting.

"Mr. Potter," The blonde man said deferentially.

"Sheesh, call me Harry."

"I don't prefer Trevor, particularly; if you don't mind."

Harry shook his head, opened the door to the empty training room and led the way in. "This your first day?"

"Yup," Tridant replied, taking in the room. He walked over to the training dummy and gave it a push, making it swing on its hook. His obnoxious attitude was missing, but Harry expected it would reappear presently.

Harry left Tridant alone to check if Tonks was about. He could not find her and did not feel like deciphering the log in Shacklebolt's presence to try to figure out where she was.

By the time Harry returned to the training room, Kerry Ann had arrived. She gave Harry a friendly welcome-home hug.

"Did you see that Tri-D starts training with us today," she said.

The pained annoyance Tridant turned on Kerry Ann boded poorly for his new demure attitude. "Please don't call me that."

"Sure," she replied, but her eyes sparkled. "How's the arm, Harry?"

"Good." Harry waved his arm. "All healed."

Tridant asked quietly, "Is that the injury you received at the award ceremony that you're talking about?" As he was asking this, Vineet and Aaron came in and rather than take their seats, joined them in standing around.

"Yeah," Harry confirmed. "I messed it up more changing into my Animagus form so it took a long time to heal."

"Did you get the award?" Tridant asked.

"Minister gave it to me after the battle was over."

Tridant turned to the others. "How many medals get doled out every year?"

"Hoping for one already?" Kerry Ann teased, but Tridant just shrugged cockily. She said, "Harry's the only one with medals I think. I'm sure he'd let you polish them . . . if you asked nicely."

Harry moved to a desk and unpacked his books. A fifth desk had been added to the room, upsetting the symmetry. "Medals don't matter."

"How could they not matter?" Tridant asked, disbelieving.

"Staying alive is all that matters," Harry stated with authority.

Tridant stepped closer, head low to better be at Harry's eye level. "It doesn't matter to you whether people recognize what you've done or not?"

"I prefer to be left alone," Harry said.

"No wonder your press is so rotten awful," Tridant commented, taking a desk for himself. He barely fit his tall, burly self into it.

Rodgers came in then, distracted as usual. "I assume you've all introduced yourselves. Mr. Tridant is going to be mixed in with you for training purposes because Merlin knows we can't spare anyone to train him separate. On that note, we'll have your belated advancement ceremony tomorrow afternoon so we don't have five Firsters." He bent over his papers and muttered, "I think I would die if we did."

The anticipation in the room was palpable the first time Tridant was called up for a demonstration. Harry rubbed his nose, trying to hide a smile that kept tugging at his mouth. But Rodgers disappointed them all by being relatively gentle with the first round of spells he used to test Tridant's basic counters. Harry frowned then, thinking that Snape and his trainer had changed an almost disappointing amount.

"All right, then. Your Titan, let's try that one again," Rodgers said, stepping back to the wall for more room, which in general would give his opponent more time to react.

Tridant landed on his rear this time when the spell poured out at him, and in response to his stunned expression, Rodgers said, "I don't use the same power every drill, Tridant. Stand up and do it again."

Like a Great Dane, who has tripped over his overlarge paws, Tridant stood and shook himself out before raising his wand. He was rattled still from the last fall and did no better with the next spell.

"Take a seat . . . at a desk this time," Rodgers said, gesturing with his wand. "Kerry Ann."

Kerry Ann stood and took on the exact same spell. Her block threw the spell around the room, knocking a book off Tridant's desk. He reached too late to catch it and had to scoop it off the floor. He still appeared stunned as though wondering whether he perhaps was in over his head.

"Modulate those, Kalendula," Rodgers snapped to Kerry Ann's sly expression. "Again."

They were paired up for drills, Rodgers taking the new apprentice. Harry was hoping for a chance at him, but by the time drills were done Tridant seemed befuddled by the long string of corrections and criticisms only rarely interspersed with praise.

As they broke for lunch, Harry hung back after everyone else left to say to Tridant, "You're lucky he's going easy on you."

Tridant stared at Harry. "This is easy?"

"You haven't been sent to the Ministry Healer yet, have you?" Harry pointed out.

"You have?"

"I can't count how many times," Harry said, truly enjoying himself and starting to understand why the program selected apprentices for their seriously oversized attitudes. By the time they were reshaped and could hold their own they had also learned to deal easily with defeat and rough treatment. Harry was tempted to tell Tridant that things would get better, but he did not quite like him enough yet. "Come on, lunch time," he said instead.

In the afternoon Harry was very pleased he could answer all the questions sent his way regarding the readings, especially since Rodgers had gone into some kind of intense examination mode due to Tridant's presence.

"Did your readings while sunning on the Dalmatian Coast. Amazing," Rodgers observed, after Harry recited or passably recreated the policy for interdepartmental magical equipment loans.

Harry's mood continued to rise, given that his evening entailed moving the rest of his things from Hermione's flat and the Burrow back to his house. And to top it all off, he could use his arm as much as he liked while doing so.

Hermione helped Harry convey trunks of stuff through the Floo network and then hover them up the stairs. Ron was working late, which did not seem to disappoint Hermione any. On one such trip, they encountered Snape in the main hall, hovering a new pair of couches onto the rug placed in the far half of the hall, near the small windows.

"Those look nice there," Hermione said, letting the trunk she herded clunk to the floor by the steps where she abandoned it. She went over to examine the new furniture.

The couches were black suede. Even the throw pillows were black. "More places to sit will be good for the party," Hermione observed, sounding approving.

"The invitee list is long, then, am I to presume?" Snape asked.

"Harry's not to know," Hermione informed him. "He's just to show up, not to worry about anything."

Harry said, "I live here, showing up isn't a problem."

She gave him a knowing smile and went back to ferrying the trunk to the first floor.

"She's up to something," Harry said, running his hand over the soft fabric of a cushion. "Wow."

"You are sufficiently skilled to already know what she is planning," Snape pointed out in a low tone.

"I don't do that," Harry said. "It's cheating."

"Surprising you are still alive," Snape stated airily. "How is your arm, by the way?"

Harry ran it through a range of motion with no pain, just extra tickling sensitivity where the flesh was new. "Great." Just sitting down on one of the couches and not moving a muscle seemed highly appealing. "I need to unpack," he said reluctantly. "I was hoping to stay the night in my own bed for once. Where's Candide?"

"Dinner with her parents," Snape said, domestically adjusting cushions as a distraction, which made Harry have to swallow yet another smile that day.

"You're not there?" Harry prodded.

Snape's shoulders curled and his head angled to the side, but he did not seem angry, just disturbed. Hermione came back down the stairs just then and, being the very intelligent person she was, took in the scene and said, "I'll meet you back at the Burrow, Harry," and disappeared.

"What's wrong?" Harry asked Snape. He wanted this marriage thing to work out, so he was not going to sit idle if warning signs began appearing.

In a disgusted voice, Snape mocked, "Dinner with the parents."

"So? She's been through dinner with your dad."

"My father has far lower expectations."

Harry, thinking of Snape's intensely critical father, said, "Are you joking?"

"I think he is more easily satisfied in matters such as this," Snape restated.

Harry gave in to the siren call of the couch before him and dropped onto it. It absorbed him with a sigh. "Uh oh," Harry muttered, but returned to the topic at hand. "Are you afraid they're not going to accept you, or something?"

A hard tone appeared. "They have no choice."

"So then, what does it matter? Go have dinner and get it over with." He stared at Snape, who was clearly unconvinced. "Severus," Harry criticized.

"I don't like caring," Snape hissed.

"Caring about . . .?" Harry prompted.

"About what people think," Snape clarified, getting angry with Harry now it seemed.

Harry's neck was getting sore. "Sit down," he suggested. "I'm tired of looking up at you. And clearly you need to relax."

Snape looked like he might resist, but moved slowly to sit on the edge of the other couch, set at a right angle to the one Harry sat on. Unfortunately for him, the couch did not allow for uptight sitters and he fell backward into it.

Harry laughed from his fully slouched and comfortable posture. "You shouldn't have bought charmed couches."

Snape fought for a more upright sitting position. "I didn't. They are Muggle furniture, through and through."

Harry closed his eyes, drifted a minute, and said, "If I didn't know better, I'd suspect you of not only caring what they think but fearing they are going to reject you outright." There was no response, so Harry, still staring at the darkness behind his eyelids, added, "But I know better, so that can't be it." Harry tilted his chin to his chest and looked over at his adoptive father, reclining awkwardly with his hand propped under his chin. Quietly, Harry said, "To hell with them, Severus, if they don't accept you."

Snape came back with, "Watch your language," but it lacked force.

"I think you should just get it over with," Harry said after a pause. "Do you want me to go with you?"

Snape shook his head. "I should not use you as a shield, or a distraction, for that matter."

"Do they know about me?"

"Yes, of course."

Harry waited for more, and finally had to ask. "Am I helping? Or . . .?"

Snape snorted lightly. "Your presence in this family does help I am told, yes."

Harry felt more relieved to hear that than he wished to be. With a great heave, Harry pushed himself to sit forward, hands clasped between his knees. The couch felt unstable if one sat on just the edge, as though it might let you slip to the floor without warning. "Let me know, Severus, what you think will help. I'll do whatever you ask."

Snape did not reply so Harry, thinking he was feeling awkward, changed the topic. "We're at last having our advancement ceremony tomorrow. If you wanted to come."

"I most certainly wish to attend," Snape stated.

"It's at 2:00, but I don't think it will be really formal or anything. It's being held in the Aurors' office."

"I shall be there."

"No bells on though, I suppose," Harry teased, trying to lighten the mood.

"I never wear bells," Snape stated with finality. He rocked forward and made it to his feet on the second attempt. "Let's finish moving back in, shall we?" He stretched his neck as though he had strained it and added, "And perhaps return these couches . . ."

- 888 -

The next afternoon in the changing room, Harry donned his Auror dress robes, which felt a little tight across the shoulders. They looked fine in the full length mirror, so he ignored the constricted feeling they gave him. He transferred his borrowed wand to the wand pocket of the robes and joined his fellows in the Aurors' office.

Kerry Ann appeared flushed with excitement as they allowed themselves to be lined up in the narrow space between the cubicles. Aaron by contrast was more subdued, unusually matching Vineet's attitude. They had an impromptu moment of silence for Munz who would have been made a full Auror that day. Kerry Ann lost her bubbly attitude after this and stopped sending bright glances over at Ambroise beside her mother. The Minister was not attending, so Belinda had come bearing the box of new adornments.

Tridant stood off to the side with the other visitors while Mr. Weasley went down the row of them, Belinda on his heel holding the box and seeming distracted. Mr. Weasley shook each of them by the hand and added a chain to their shoulder, starting with Blackpool, who now had two gold and one silver.

While Harry waited his turn he glanced over at Snape and Candide standing in the doorway and for a moment he felt dizzy with the alternative endings to the close calls that could have left either or both of them dead. A deep breath later, he felt less fragile but not as strong as he wished. He was distracted by Mr. Weasley adding a second gold chain to his left shoulder.

"Good job, Harry. Knew you could do it," he said, shaking Harry's hand vigorously.

Harry fingered the chains, finding that they meant more than expected. Even though they were just a symbol, they provided solid evidence that the last year was over and therefore could be put behind him. Mr. Weasley finished up with Aaron, gave then all one last round of accolades and then chided everyone to return to work. Snape approached, clearing the doorway.

"Loads to be proud of, Harry," Candide said when they reached his side and the tide of people had washed the other way.

Harry wanted to repeat what he had said the day before, that being alive was all that mattered. But he could not say it again now; their pride in him did matter.

"Shall we have a celebratory dinner somewhere nice tonight?" Candide suggested.

Harry had to hold himself from glancing at Tonks, with whom he was planning to have precisely that. "Er," Harry hemmed.

Snape said, "I think Harry's birthday will have to do for the celebratory dinner."

"Oh," Candide said, clearly not understanding.

The room had nearly emptied. Only Tonks hung back, fiddling with papers on her desk. "I have to get back to my training," Harry said to dismiss them. "Thanks for coming, even though it was short."

Snape nodded in acknowledgment. He shot a last level glance at Tonks before turning and departing. Candide squeezed Harry's arm and followed.

When they were alone, Tonks said, "You could have gone out with them tonight instead."

"I'd rather go out with you," Harry said quietly, stepping closer.

She held a hand up. "Rodgers is about to come hunting for you, I'm certain."

Harry dearly wanted to wrap her up in his arms, something he had not had a chance to do in a week and a half. He sighed and departed for the training room, thinking the evening could not come fast enough.

Indeed, their dinner out was delayed because Tonks was late returning from an assignment. After having too much time on his hands during holiday, Harry found himself impatient with things not happening exactly when he wanted them to. He loitered in the corridor after the other apprentices had left for the day, hoping Tonks would make an appearance. When this failed, and various passing people glanced up at him questioningly, Harry decided to give Belinda a visit. Her mood during their advancement ceremony had declined again, in contrast to most everyone else's around the Ministry.

Before Shacklebolt could pass by a third time with a raised thick eyebrow, Harry headed for the stairwell to go up a level. He reminded himself that Tonks would be a while finishing reports, if she did return before he did.

Belinda sat at her desk, scowling at a sheaf of parchments in her hand. The outer office was a hive of activity; a meeting was going on around the low table and workers were repairing shelves in the corner, so books, crystal balls and gifts from foreign dignitaries were stacked on the floor along the walls.

"Hi," Harry said.

"Hallo," Belinda said dully, making Harry believe that she was upset with him about something, although he had no idea what it might be.

"I, er, didn't get a chance to talk during the ceremony earlier and I realized, well, that we hadn't in a while."

She set the stack of parchments before her and smoothed them, not meeting his gaze. "Congratulations," she said, almost out of the blue.

Harry's awkwardness increased. He could not ask her what the problem was here in the office. "Do you want to go out for coffee sometime? You can sometimes get out for lunch, right?"

"Not a good idea," she said.

"Oh." Harry fidgeted and turned sharply when a nasal voice said, "Problem Potter?" Harry turned to face Percy Weasley, who had one boney elbow propped outward, fist on hip.

"No," Harry replied easily, glad he now understood why Belinda had been giving him such chilly responses. "Just came up to chat."

"It's a bit busy here," Percy pointed out as though Harry were ten years old. A drilling spell from the dismantled corner loudly accented the accusation that Harry may be in the way.

Harry shrugged and said goodbye extra sweetly to Belinda as he departed. The corridor was blissfully peaceful in contrast. Harry shrugged inside his robes, feeling like he needed a shower after simply talking to Percy.

Late in the evening, Tonks and Harry finally made it to a small Muggle restaurant in the West End. It was so dark inside, Harry at first thought it was closed for the night. But it was not and they were seated at a candlelit table beside a mirrored wall that reflected myriad, cascading candlelit tables and orange-hued faces from the mirror on the opposing wall.

Harry appreciated the darkness as he took hold of Tonks' hand across the table. "I missed you," he said.

Tonks replied, "It felt like more than eight days. More like eighty days. You look gorgeous with that bronzed skin. Makes me jealous."

In the flickering darkness, her usual tall pink hair appeared orangish, or perhaps she had changed it to orange. She wore a form-fitting knitted top that made Harry wish they could just skip dinner and go straight to her flat.

"Next time you and I should go."

She teased, "I didn't have an injury serious enough to keep me from working, unlike some people."

Harry said, "You seem more relaxed, or is it just me assuming you are because I am?"

"No, things quieted down nicely. We've caught up with the worst of the escapees from Azkaban. The Ministry's getting cleaned up." She shrugged. "Let's not talk about the Ministry."

Harry fished in his head for another topic while the warm hum of conversation and the clink of silver surrounded them. "You're coming to my birthday party, right?"

"Late. I'm on duty until 9:00."

Harry frowned. "Which means you probably won't make it until 11:00, at the earliest."

"I'll make it eventually, Harry. I promise." She gave him a smile to seal it.

At her flat, they curled around each other on the couch and Harry silently agreed that it felt like it had been eighty days since they last were together. Despite believing he would take it slow and relish things, it did not work out that way, and too soon they were threaded around each other, spent.

Harry was half asleep, in spite of not being entirely comfortable, when Tonks stirred and said, "I could use a cup of herb tea."

Harry unwound himself to let her rise, then pulled random articles of clothing back on as she made tea.

"Want some?" she asked, standing just outside the kitchen holding a teapot, wearing only an unbuttoned shirt.

"Sure," Harry said, thinking that she could skip the tea and just stand there for a while and that would be fine too.

From the kitchen, she asked, "How's it feel to be a Second-Year?"

"I thought we weren't going to talk about the Ministry."

"I'm not; I'm talking about you." She brought the teapot out and two tea cups, which she proceeded to dry with the loose corner of her shirt.

"It's nice to be reminded I'm making progress." Harry held out a cup for her to fill, then had to move his fingers to the lip when the thin china grew scalding hot.

Tonks said, "Minister Bones held a little meeting with a few people from the department to talk about how we can work on your image."

Harry growled.

"Don't make noises like that while I'm holding a hot cup of tea," she said. "I have a hard enough time with that, normally."

Harry smiled, but then heard himself say, "You're very cold at the Ministry." He may not have said it had he thought ahead.

She stared at her hands cradling her cup. "I have to be, Harry. You should be too, but you keep slipping up."

"I just . . . think it'd be nice to behave, well, normally."

"If we are in a bad spot—which happens not infrequently as Aurors—neither you nor I can take personal feelings into account. It's deadly if we do."

"The Longbottoms managed it. Since they were married before they were Aurors, they could behave normally." Harry was not certain why he continued to argue this, but he needed to get it out in the open more than he needed to be rational.

"Harry, look where they are now. Ask Shacklebolt what happened to them sometime."

"I know what happened to them; Bellatrix happened to them."

"Yeah, but how'd she catch them? They messed up, Harry." She topped up her cup and folded her feet under herself.

"Bellatrix thought Voldemort could be still alive. Turns out she was right. I wonder if she knew about the horcruxes."

"I don't want to talk about it. It was way before my time, so I may not have the story straight." But despite her assertion, she added, "'Course, Reggie messed up with Bellatrix too."

Harry pulled the knitted blanket from the back of the couch over the both of them and leaned closer to her. "What exactly happened with Rodgers?"

"He walked into a trap. But he was at his limit already. At some point after that many hours on duty you are on automatic and can't think suspiciously enough."

"What did Severus have to do with it?"

"He came to the rescue. You didn't hear that?"

"I don't think Rodgers wanted me to know that," Harry said, grinning. "No wonder they're no longer at each other's throat." He took her tea cup away and set it on the floor so she would not spill it when he aggressively moved to kiss the hollow above her collarbone.

- 888 -

Saturday arrived and with it Harry's birthday. Harry slept in till 9:00 a.m. because he had been out field shadowing until 1:00 a.m. the night before. He had shadowed Blackpool, who could now officially take him around, although that had not stopped them being assigned together before when the office was too busy to avoid it.

Most of the evening, Blackpool seemed to have other things on her mind, but at one point she asked Harry to help her reinforce a spell barrier around a wizard bulletin board in Blossom Square that had suffered during the riots. Harry at the best of times found large barriers difficult, but his borrowed wand made it impossible to sustain the right magic to complete the spell. He could only apologize for not being able to do this minor duty. Her pragmatic words of, "Just get a new wand, Potter," still echoed in his head this morning.

Harry snarfed breakfast while Snape and Candide read the newspaper, having long since eaten.

"Off somewhere?" Snape asked, when Harry stood not five minutes after sitting down.

"I have to go to Ollivanders," Harry explained. "The Ministry wand I've been using isn't working well enough for me."

"Do you have sufficient gold for a new one?"

"I think so. I can go to my vault if I don't."

Snape's distracted attention narrowed down at that. "Let me know if you do need anything."

Harry swung his cloak on and prepared to use the Floo. "I need a wand that doesn't have a history."

Snape stood at that and intercepted Harry as he was putting the canister of Floo powder back on the mantelpiece, crystals of powder dribbled out between the fingers of his over-full left hand. "Fighting fate is rarely successful."

"Thanks, Sybill," Harry breathed before tossing in the powder.

- 888 -

Harry took a deep breath and turned the latch of Ollivander's shop door. Bells jingled above his head. A lean shadow crawled across the back wall and the old wizard came into view.

"Ah, Mr. Potter, what can I do for you?"

Glancing around the tightly packed boxes surrounding them, Harry said, "I lost my wand and I need a new one."

Harry could not read Ollivander's piercing, pale-eyed gaze. The older wizard clasped his hands together and fell thoughtful while peering around his stock. "We tried quite a few wands last time, Mr. Potter. But . . . there are a few new ones you could try . . ." He trailed off accommodatingly.

"I've been using this one," Harry said, holding up the borrowed wand from his department.

Ollivander cursorily examined it, asking, "How does it work for you?"

"It works. Mostly. Doesn't do everything quite the way I'm used to."

Ollivander rewove his fingers together. "Lost the old, you say?"

"Fighting Merton, yes. It might have shown up . . . that's why I waited to get a new one. I wasn't certain if it was destroyed or not." This excuse sounded good, even to Harry, who knew he had put it off because he feared fate would repeat itself yet again with a replica of the old one.

They had reached an impasse; Ollivander broke it by turning to fetch his ladder and some wands from his stock.

"This is an unusual one," Ollivander said, shaking open a long narrow box much the same as the others. He held up a long white wand with a spiral pattern of grain. "Unicorn horn with fairy wing tendon."

Harry took hold of the wand. It felt different, all right. "The Unicorn is still alive?" he asked, knowing the answer, but asking nevertheless. He really was musing on how the wand would behave after the Unicorn had died.

"I would expect."

Harry tried a few spells. The hover came out strangely. The book floating before him visibly vibrated.

"That wand is looking for someone," Ollivander said, almost confessing. "I don't know whom. Does not like charms as well as hexes, in my practice with it at least."

Harry handed it back and another box was lifted off a healthy pile of two dozen still to go. "Coral tipped Palissandre," Ollivander announced as he held out a pastel pink wand streaked with brown. "The core is harpy feather."

This wand did nothing when Harry waved it. He handed it back.

"As expected," the shopkeeper said. "I made that one for the mer-boy the Hogwarts headmistress tells me is getting a letter just about now."

"One of the mer people is attending Hogwarts?" Harry asked in surprise. "How is he going to breathe?"

"A water charm of some kind, I'm sure. Or a diving bell full of water if all else fails."

He handed Harry another wand. "Sandlewood with Mngwa whisker."

Half an hour later, Ollivander informed Harry that he had exhausted his stock of new wand materials since Harry had last shopped there. "The rosewood and glass Cherufe hair performed the best, I believe," Ollivander helpfully said.

"Not good enough. Charms didn't work at all," Harry admitted. He dropped his head and let his eyes flow over the piles of open boxes on the counter. Ollivander began meticulously putting each wand away in its proper box and stacking them in a basket for restocking. Harry did not want to give in, but there seemed no choice. "If I bring you a feather from Fawkes, can you make me another like my old one?" Harry heard himself ask.

Ollivander nodded.

"I'll do that, then," Harry informed him, feeling dispirited. "I should fetch one now while I have the time."

Harry Disapparated to Tonks' flat, which he knew was empty, and dropped through the Dark Plane to arrive behind Hagrid's hut. Snape did not want Harry traveling though the Dark Plane, especially on so casual an errand, but Harry was feeling disgruntled and unwilling to obey even good advice as a result.

Hagrid was tending his vegetable plot, thinning the small pumpkins down by picking out those that were not of his preferred shape. "That one'll never do," he said, tossing a donut-shaped, beach ball sized pumpkin beyond the garden fence as though it were a trifle. "Oh, hello Harry. Didn't see ya there."

"Can I borrow Fawkes for a minute?" Harry asked. "I need a tail feather from him for a new wand."

Harry almost half-hoped Hagrid would forbid him to have one for some obscure exotic animal care reason. But Hagrid just stood straight, rubbing his great broad back, and said, "We'll, let's see what we can do fer yeh."

Fawkes flapped his wings when they entered. He was in full feather, Harry observed and could not avoid the eerie sense of coincidence. "He looks good," Harry said.

"Aye. He's about to start a month of molting then comes the flames and ashes, and then we start again." He turned to Harry conspiratorially. "That's when I have to move his perch outside or risk losing my thatch." He turned to the bird. "Harry here needs a tail feather. You're going to lose those two you have in a week or three anyhow and by then they'll be ragged as the weeds I dredged out o' the lake last week."

The bird tilted its head to look at Hagrid better and shuffled along its perch away from him. Harry approached and stroked the bird's head and wing. "Believe me, I don't really want to take your lovely feather but I don't have any choice."

Fawkes stepped up onto Harry's hand and pecked at his robes but it did not seem aggressive, more conversational. Hagrid said, "That's all right then." And gave a snapping tug on the longest of Fawkes' tail feathers. He startled Harry and the bird equally when Fawkes gave an ear-splitting squawk! and fluttered once around the cabin before flapping back to the perch and fussing with his remaining good feather.

"Thanks Fawkes," Harry said. The bird ignored him.

Hagrid wrapped the feather in a soft deer hide and handed it to Harry. "There you are."

"Thanks Hagrid. I don't know if I could have . . . yanked it out like that."

"Ach, nothing to it. He was going to burn it to ash shortly enough."

Harry returned to Ollivander's via the Floo in Hogsmeade, uncertain if passing through the Dark Plane may harm the feather's magic. He presented the whole bundle to the old wizard craftsman and put down an eight Galleon deposit.

"I'll push your wand to the top of the list, given your position, the poor match you have with your current wand, and your history of attractiveness to those with evil intent. It should be finished in a week. Call again next Saturday."

"Thank you, sir," Harry said, giving the old wizard a small bow because just saying goodbye seemed insufficient.

Harry was still melancholy when he returned home. The house had been decorated in his absence and now black, maroon and green streamers lined the center hall and a pile of presents had been started on a table in the corner. The house was quiet, and Harry stood still there in the center of the big room, captured by his own thoughts.

Snape stepped up beside him, quietly, but not so silent that Harry did not lack all awareness that he was there. Harry shook himself and returned to the here and now.

"How did it go?" Snape asked.

"I fetched Ollivander a feather from Fawkes to use to make another." Try as he might, Harry could not make his voice come out other than annoyed.

Sounding as though he wished to tread carefully, Snape asked, "What is wrong with having a wand that works properly for you?"

"Nothing's wrong with that," Harry said. "It's just that . . . that wand had a role to play and if that wand is always destined to be mine, then the role is also."

"I don't believe I ever expected to have to say this to you, but I believe you are over-analyzing the situation."

Harry plunked himself down on one of the couches and let himself sink backwards. "I don't want to fight Voldemort any longer."

Snape stepped around until he faced Harry, expression narrowed with disbelief. "I do not know what makes you fear that you will need to. He is safely, and helplessly I might add, ensconced within the French wizard prison. I cannot imagine he will be going anywhere anytime soon."

"True," Harry admitted.

"It is time to focus on your training-"

Harry interrupted with, "It is time to focus on my birthday."

"Yes, well, for today," Snape conceded.

Harry got to his feet and surveyed the tables that had been set up. An empty punch bowl and haphazard stacks of crystal cups sat around it. "Hermione's been busy already."

"I believe she won't be returning until 4:00 or so," Snape informed Harry, sounding cryptic.

"You know something I don't," Harry suggested.

Snape gave a haughty lift of his nose and stepped away.

"Ach," Harry said, resting his head back. "At least I don't feel followed around all the time anymore."

This re-attracted Snape's attention before he could reach the stairs. Harry went on: "Maybe Mad Eye's found something better to do."

"Maybe he decided on a holiday as well," Snape suggested.

"Maybe he's just getting more careful," Harry said, sitting forward. He ran the detection spell for the house, but it fizzled. Harry slapped his own forehead and groaned.

"Good thing you gave in on the wand," Snape said, snapping his wand out and running the spell himself. A thin trail of blue glitter flickered over the walls and then faded, indicated the house was secure. Snape turned and headed up the stairs saying, "Unless you are looking for an exercise in humility, I would recommend declining any invitations to duel at your party tomorrow."

Next Week: Chapter Three - Nineteen Years

Snape shook his head decisively and crouched to add drops of something blue to the glass just until it turned glittery inside as though the liquid had frozen over all of a sudden.

"What are you making?"

"Something of my own concocting."

"I've never seen it before."

"You have. I concocted it for you when you were in the Dark Lord's grips and dared not sleep."

Chapter 3: Nineteen Years
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Chapter 3 -- Nineteen Years

Partygoers began showing up just before 4:00 and the hall filled with voices and merriment. Old school chums, including Ginny, now released from her detention, Ministry fellows, and neighbors clustered about the room. Harry admonished each new arrival who brought a gift, but despite this, the gift table filled up. Suze released a training Snitch and set it to zipping around the chandelier. Aaron, unusually, arrived dateless and cornered the Slytherin Seeker, intent on learning his old house's upcoming prospects for the cup. The Weasley twins arrived, sporting matching silvery cloaks, and began handing out small sample bags to those willing to swear with a Promissory Spell not to sue them later.

"Ron, are you sure you want to eat that?" Harry asked of the thick transparent jelly-like biscuit his friend held up for inspection. It appeared to have a tiny toy top spinning inside of it. Harry did not hear the answer because Hermione arrived, bearing an unexpected guest.

"Penelope?" Harry uttered in surprise, jumping up to approach them.

Harry gave his old girlfriend a hug. She said in surprise, "You have grown more so!"

Hermione said brightly, "I thought we should have all of your old friends and allies together, Harry. You need all you can get."

"I'll give you that." To Penelope, he said, "It's good to see you," as he led her to an empty seat near people she would know from Hogwarts. "You came all this way for my birthday?"

She giggled. "I have a colloquium in Glasgow next week. I am making a long trip of it."

"Ah. It's nice of you to come."

She leaned close and said, "Even a few people I know say such things about you. Unbelievable. You have not changed except to grow more. I can tell."

They chatted a while, meandering slowly toward a corner. "You remember Neville, right? And Luna, and Lavender." Harry pulled a chair over to join them. "Where's Ron?" he asked Lavender.

"He's had too much punch already. He's on the floor over there."

Harry jumped up and, sure enough, Ron was flat out behind a couch. Harry bent down and shook him. Hermione was just suggesting they take him to St. Mungo's when Ron burst into giggles and spat out the biscuit Harry had seen him with earlier. It rolled away across the floor and stopped, but continued gently rotating on its edge.

One of the twins scooped it up. "He wasn't supposed to eat that." He rolled eyes and said, "Oy! Fred, give me a hand."

The two of them sat the giggling and clumsy Ron up by hoisting his long arms over their shoulders.

"What's that thing?" Harry asked.

"It's a Misplacement Gimcracker. You slip it inside something and then that thing is never where you left it." To Harry's confused look, he went on. "You do it to someone you don't like. You know, put it in their briefcase or handbag, or something."

"You all right, Ron?" Hermione asked him.

Ginny crouched down with them. "Did he choke on something?"

"In a manner of speaking," Hermione said, sounding less sympathetic now.

Ron's giggling slowed and he managed to get himself onto a chair with only light assistance. He shook his head repeatedly as though to clear it. He blinked and looked around. "Is this Harry's birthday party?"

"Yes," several people replied in unison.

"Oh good," Ron said.

Candide came in. Harry would not have noticed her in the crowded room, except she was sneaking over to the presents table. Harry leaned his head to the side to better watch her slip a gift onto it from behind her back.

Harry intercepted her on her way back to the dining room, truly surprising her with his admonishing expression. She said, "I can't believe you caught me at that. There must be a hundred people in here. I had trouble thinking of a good gift until this afternoon. That was the first chance I had to get it on the table."

"I'm quite certain the invitations stated, no gifts," he said, mostly teasing.

She pulled herself straight and said, "I didn't receive an invitation. So there." She tugged Harry toward the dining room. "Your cousin wants to say hello."

Harry joined the real adults around the far quieter dining room table. Snape sat back with his hand hooked around a small tumbler of something. Candide returned to sitting across from him and sipped her tea. Pamela sat holding the hand of Lupin, who appeared excessively withered.

"How are you, Remus?" Harry asked.

Pamela patted the hairy hand she held. "Only three days since the full moon, but I convinced him come to your party, I'm afraid."

"'s good to get out," Lupin said.

Harry was not given much time to talk before being dragged back into the hall to open his gifts. The punch had been spiked twice by then and the voices had grown louder and less sensical as it was consumed. Harry accepted each gift with some trepidation that he did not need so many things. But by the time he opened the fourth highly practical gift--in this case a set of orange curtains from Ron with cannon balls flying around on them--he turned to Hermione questioningly.

She leaned forward to pat Harry on the knee, saying tipsily, "Of course I told everyone exactly what to get you. After the fire, you needed some things."

"Thanks. And thanks, Ron."

"My mum sewed them for you, I expect." Ron sounded like he wished he remembered for certain. He pulled a corner of one close and said, "Hope you don't mind that it probably was a duvet cover of Charlie's before this."

"I don't mind at all." He held them up. "They look the right size too."

Hermione said, "I gave Ron exact measurements, but he doesn't remember my doing that."

"I do," Ron argued unconvincingly.

Many of the boxes contained silver gift coins. Harry made a careful stack of the ones to Cloak Couture, one of the new shops in the Diagon Alley expansion. He did need a new cloak.

When there were no more un-opened boxes, Harry said, "Thanks, everyone." He found Candide in the crowd with his eyes. "Especially for the collapsible pet cage."

Tonks arrived after the party returned to its former boisterous conversation. She gave Harry a chummy hug.

"How did shift go?" Harry asked, drawing her aside into the corner so he could be relatively alone with her.

"Swimmingly. It was quiet enough we went ex-prisoner hunting."

"Catch anyone?" Harry asked.

"Two ones," she replied between bites of cold, scattered tidbits from the table nearby. "They were silly enough to return to England after initially running off to Belgium to hide." She licked her fingers. "Happy Birthday, Harry. I didn't tell you that yet, did I?"

"No, but thanks. It almost isn't anymore."

"Just in time, then," she said with a wink. Harry would have accepted her good wishes two or three hours late with no difficulty.

The party wound down as they talked, which Harry was only vaguely aware of until Ginny came over, sheepish about interrupting. "We have to go soon."

"Oh," Harry said, glancing around the much thinned crowd. He spied Ron, playing with a wooden game Harry had received where you tilted it to get a metal ball through a maze. If you went down the wrong hole, it squirted ink in your face. Ron had streaks of grey around his ear and a stained hanky in his hand. Harry pulled Ginny closer. "Better tell your mum what happened to your brother."

Ginny's whole demeanor shifted. "She's going to lay into the twins if I do."

"Ron may need a Healer though. I offered to take him, but he doesn't remember what happened, so it's tough to convince him. Your mum could get him to go if he doesn't get better."

Ginny sighed. "Yeah. You're right. He's not really bad, but I don't think that thing did him any good." She glanced between the two of them, with a hint of jealousy, but it turned out to have a different origin than expected. "How's your training, now that you're back into it?"

Harry relaxed, not realizing he'd tensed. "It's good. Apply again next year, Ginny."

He expected the same noncommittal response as last time, but she said, "Of course. Your fellow apprentice, Aaron, said he'd send me his reading list and some of his books, which he's highlighted all to death with the critical things."

"That was nice of him."

Ginny's gaze slid over to where Aaron stood talking with Vineet, Hermione and a few others. "Yeah, he is nice," she said, sounding far away.

"Ginny," Harry snapped. "You can't get involved . . ." he started, but had to close his mouth. He was standing there next to Tonks after all. His face heated up.

Ginny broke out laughing. "I don't even know if I'll ever get into the program for it to matter," she argued when she had the chance. She had the grace to not state the obvious, but she kept giggling periodically and shaking her head in amusement. "I have to take Ron home, like you said, tell mum. See what she wants to do with him. See if she thinks he's not quite himself."

"Let me know if you need anything," Harry said to her departing back. She waved over her shoulder in acknowledgment.

"Ron looks the same as always to me," Tonks said. "Well, the same as always if he's been attacked by a squid."

"Once we're done here, we should go to your place," Harry said suggestively.

Tonks stood more alert. "I'll go on ahead and clean up. I was crawling around in shrubbery this evening."

Harry wanted to give her a kiss before she departed, but decided it would be a bad habit to break, once started.

The hall gradually emptied, leaving only Snape lounging on one of the couches, perusing a book Harry had received on disguise spells entitled Shrouded Aspect. Harry dropped onto the opposing couch and peered around the littered room. The clock showed ten past one. It had been a good birthday. Harry should stop worrying about his wand situation. As Snape said, Voldemort was unlikely to cause trouble from his current position.

Snape closed the book and set it on a pile of boxes. He nodded when Harry asked if Candide had gone to bed.

"I hope we weren't keeping her awake," Harry said, suddenly thinking of this.

"Silencing charms work wonders in such situations."

Harry stood, thinking he would head to Tonks' flat. He picked up a few boxes, sorting out the gifts, not wanting to leave all of this for Winky to do. When he finished with a quick reorganization he noticed that Snape had not moved. Concerned that it may generate another lecture he nonetheless said, "I'm going to go stay with Tonks."

Snape waved his hand dismissively and picked up his tumbler from the floor. He glanced around and waved the nearly empty bottle from the dining room to refill it.

This jarred Harry out of his immediate thoughts of Tonks waiting for him. "Aren't you going to bed?"

"Eventually. Go on." The tone had gone dismissive, hard even. He resembled Lupin that evening in his posture, as though overly tired.

Harry looked around the room, picking up and discarding possibilities. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Snape stated, adding annoyance into the mix.

"Something wrong with Candide?" Harry asked, plowing in because, not in spite of, the danger signs.

"Candide is fine," Snape stated, and indeed his tone softened as he said this, indicating it was the truth.

Harry sat back down across from Snape, pouring over recent memories. He had been spending little time at home now that they had returned. "You look like you could use a good night's sleep," Harry said, hoping worry over him was not the reason Snape looked less than well rested. "Why don't you take one of your own potions and go to bed?"

Harry hung there, waiting for a response. He was certain Snape teetered between snapping at him and giving in. "Do you want me skip going to Tonks' place tonight?" Harry asked. "I know you don't approve . . ."

"It is your birthday; you should go," Snape stated flatly. He stood and sighed. "I perhaps will follow your advice."

Harry followed him down to the toilet and leaned against the doorframe as Snape searched through the cabinets.

"I certainly do not need your assistance with mixing a potion."

"I know that," Harry said. He wanted to press more to get Snape to talk, but he also did not want to to have it confirmed that Harry himself was keeping him up at night.

Snape toweled out a tall glass he had found and heated it with his wand until the water droplets in the sink under it hissed into steam. "When will your new wand be finished?"

"Next Saturday," Harry replied, determined not to be distracted.

Snape poured a bit of clear, thick liquid into the glass. It immediately began boiling. His hair now obscured his face. "That is fast."

"He made it a rush order because I tend to attract evil."

"True enough." Snape bent to add a grey powder to the glass with precise taps on the container. He stirred the mixture with a glass rod and said after several minutes. "You are still here."

Harry could not deny that. "I want to know you're all right." A thought occurred to Harry then. "The Crutiatus curse isn't coming back is it?" Harry half hoped it was that, because that he could help with.

"No, it is not," Snape replied tiredly.

"Do you want me to check?"

Snape shook his head decisively and crouched to add drops of something blue to the glass just until it turned glittery inside as though the liquid had frozen over all of a sudden.

"What are you making?"

"Something of my own concocting."

"I've never seen it before."

"You have. I concocted it for you when you were in the Dark Lord's grips and dared not sleep."

Harry remembered that horrible day with great reluctance. But after a cursory review of compacted memories, considered that even if the Crucios were no longer bothering Snape physically that did not mean they were leaving his dreams alone. Snape lifted the glass and held it up where it could catch the light of the lamp. The crystalline frost inside slowly dissolved toward transparent.

"Are you going to be all right?" Harry asked.

With more typical grumbling spirit, Snape said, "I do not want you worrying about me."

"Why not?"

"I believe your ladyfriend is awaiting you," Snape said.

Harry laughed lightly. "She keeps me waiting all the time. You didn't answer the question."

Snape rotated the glass, tilting it as though to urge it along. "If you are worrying about me, I am failing at this role."

Silence descended until the glass was completely clear and Snape moved to pour it into an empty bottle for which he could actually locate its matching stopper. He slipped the bottle into his robe pocket and began putting away the ingredients. That, done, he used a rag to slowly wipe up the sink.

"You're very far from failing, Severus," Harry said. But he bit his lip as he remembered the pain of discovering that it had been Snape who had told Voldemort about the prophecy. But it should not be buried where it could fester, so he said, "You were very patient with me while I worked things out about the prophecy that killed my parents."

A shiver passed through Snape as he stood holding the edges of the sink and listening to Harry while staring at nothing in particular.

Harry insisted, "Say something."

"It is all very tenuous."

"What is?"

Snape huffed. "Life."

Harry scoffed and criticized, "Now you are getting philosophical as a distraction."

Snape moved with purpose to finish closing cabinets and then turned the lamps down to a tiny amber halo.

"Severus?" Harry prompted as he followed him out into the hall.

Snape turned slowly back to him but did not speak. His gaze was indiscernible in the low light.

"You don't want to talk about it?"

"No," Snape replied with finality and started to walk away again.

"I'm going to keep worrying about you, then," Harry threatened.

Snape paused but kept his back to Harry. "Fine."

Harry watched the black robed figure go up the stairs and into the first bedroom. Harry did not feel that things were tenuous. Thoughtful and distracted, he Apparated to Tonks' flat to find her soundly asleep. He shucked his clothes and slipped in beside her without waking her.

Harry returned for breakfast the next morning, leaving Tonks to sleep in.

"Harry! Didn't expect to see you here so early," Candide said brightly when he arrived.

"I could use a good breakfast," Harry explained, which was the truth. Breakfasts at Tonks' usually consisted of a stale scone or Danish at best.

"Came to collect your gifts, I see," Snape stated when he came in and found Harry at the table.

Harry smiled at his negative and accusatory tone. "Yep. You got me."

Candide glanced between the two of them in befuddlement. "You two have endless codes. Just when I think I've figured it out, it changes."

Candide merely picked at her small breakfast. "Feeling all right?" Harry asked.

"I am not so hungry this morning," she admitted, sounding queasy. "And I have brunch with my parents."

"You going?" Harry pointed asked Snape.

Snape shook his head, which shifted his hair forward to obscure his face. Candide was frowning as she sipped her coffee. She tapped her spoon methodically against the table a moment and then stood. "Well, I'd better go."

After she came back in, clearly dolled up more than before and disappeared in the Floo, Snape said accusingly, "Whatever you were going say, go ahead."

"I was going to say 'just as well'."

"I will second that," Snape stated as his plate disappeared. "If you had not been here, there may have been a row over that."

Harry poured more sugar into his coffee, feeling he needed the treat. "You're going to meet them at the wedding in a month in any event." He kept stirring, waiting for the gritty sound to decrease. "It isn't like you to play the victim." But as Harry said this, and he saw Snape's chin move slightly sideways as though he had been struck, a clearer picture was forming for him.

While he fished around for what to say next, Snape cut him off with, "I am all right, Harry. I've just had a few bad nights is all. Too much on my mind."

"I hope I'm not one of the things worrying you," Harry said.

"At the moment, no," Snape replied smoothly.

Harry, who knew better because of what he had overheard, said, "You lie too well."

Snape put down his coffee without sipping it. Tangible tension rose between them as though part of the table, but Harry was glad this was out; it bothered him and he wanted it dealt with.

Harry went on, stating each word with certainty so that Snape could not dodge it, "You're worried about me, about what I could become with this power."

"Yes," Snape agreed, calm now, keen alertness overwhelming any fatigue or annoyance he had shown moments before. "It is less a reflection on you than it may appear. As Alastor has pointed out to me, I have lengthy experience managing powerful wizards. I have instincts born of that time that I cannot relinquish." He carefully watched Harry's face for a reaction.

Harry for his part was feeling relieved. Relieved to be talked to as an adult and relieved that Snape trusted that he could handle his concerns.

Snape, after thinking lengthily, said, "I cannot ignore the fact that were you to turn dark, you would be unstoppable. Voldemort would be a distant happy memory for wizardom in comparison."

Harry held back his gut response to consider it, but in the end said it anyway, "I'm not going to go dark, Severus." It hurt to have Snape even believe it a possibility, but he did not want to show that because he wanted to have this conversation.

"I agree that on the face of it, it is unlikely. You are conscientious to a fault. You are not afraid of emotion. And you are, as I am well aware, capable of great forgiveness." He sipped his coffee before continuing, speaking carefully as though picking each word specifically. "All this does reassure me. But at the same time you toy with things that are monstrously larger than you, and I do not feel you give them proper apprehension."

"I assume you're talking about the Dark Plane," Harry said.

"Yes. It is an unknown that I cannot discount as a danger."

Harry thought that over, not wanting to speak any less carefully than Snape was. But he was slow responding and Snape went on, "You treat it too casually for my comfort."

"That's just it, though," Harry was compelled to say. "You don't understand; that's exactly what gives me power over it: believing I'm stronger than it. I had trouble with it only before I knew that."

It was Snape's turn to fall thoughtfully silent. When he next spoke, he said, "And you disposed of Voldemort's magic there. Does that not represent some added danger? Is he not there now in some form?"

"I hear this odd howling now that I didn't previously," Harry said with a shrug. "It might be him." Harry realized something important just then: that thinking something and saying it aloud could be two very different things. He had only idly considered his suspicion that Voldemort's magic was still intact as an entity or force in the Dark Plane, but saying it aloud to Snape and watching his brow furrow, was a very different thing. "I'm stronger than him, though," Harry persisted, knowing Snape would recognize his own quote.

Snape did not speak and left his coffee to go cold. Harry said, "I'm not reassuring you, am I?'

Snape rubbed his chin. "If I thought you were avoiding the Dark Plane, I would be somewhat reassured. When were you last there?"

Harry, given the truths being bared here, could not lie. "Yesterday."

Snape to his credit did not react. "I did not think I could influence you on this point, anymore than I could influence you on the point of Ms. Tonks."

"I don't mean to be trouble," Harry said, finding a younger version of himself speaking out, one who was accustomed to being classed as trouble by guardians who were not shy about letting him hear about it. He tried to squash it, but it refused to be. He sighed, trying to think more adult-like. "I don't want to keep you up at night."

"You aren't," Snape insisted.

Harry wanted to believe him. And normally he would not dream of prying so, but he needed to know. "You're having nightmares about being Voldemort's prisoner?"

Snape nodded faintly. "It will pass. It takes time. Quite a bit of it sometimes, in my experience."

Harry did not like feeling helpless. "If you think the Cruciatus is coming back again, let me know."

"If it has not by now, it will not do so. But I will inform you, be assured. I am not fond of pain, even if the occasional student insists otherwise."

Harry laughed lightly.

Snape returned to serious. "I do not want you to take my concerns as a loss of faith in you. You are doing very well, I can tell even without taking advantage of your letting your Occlusion slip. Your wand seems to be the only thing distressing you right now."

Harry said, "I don't know why I let it bother me so much. I think I'm over it now, but I expect when I get the new one I'll be so happy to have a wand that works again, I'll ignore that it is so tied to my fate."

"All good wands are tied to a wizard's fate."

"Yeah, I got a better sense of that at Ollivander's this time. He gets some strange inspirations about wand materials and then has to wait and wonder who is going to show up for it." Harry pulled out the short pale wand he was currently using. "Yeah, I'll be happy to get a good one again."

Snape pushed his empty cup away and it sparkled into the ether. "And perhaps this week sometime . . . dinner with the Breakstones."

"Do you want me to come along?"

"As tempting as that offer is, I should manage on my own."

Harry smiled. "Let me know, but I'd be happy to go along, Severus."

- 888 -

"Have you attempted an Animagus transformation since the treatments have stopped?" Shankwell asked when he released Harry's arm during his final appointment.

Harry shook his head.

"And you said before that your form is too big to fit in here . . ." Shankwell began but faded. At Harry's nod, he suggested, "Why don't you Apparate off somewhere more fitting to try a full transformation cycle and then come back. If that fails to produce any species distortion in the newly grown flesh, we'll declare you fully healed."

Harry leapt down off the examination table and Disapparated to the Puddlemere Quidditch grounds. It was early morning and no one was about. The few banners left up between matches snapped in the wind over the VIP box high above him. Harry walked to the main gate and peered between the decoratively curled bars at the grass oval of the pitch. No one was around inside either. Harry took a few steps back to get out from under the overhang of the stands looming above him, and transformed into a Scarlet Gryffylis. Once he did so, he could not resist flapping to feel the gravity lessen until his claws lost contact with the earth.

As much as he would relish circling the pitch in flight a few times to feel the freedom of it, he dropped until his claws dug into the turf and transformed back into himself.

Back in Shankwell's room, Harry pulled up his still unbuttoned sleeve to reveal that no harm had come from transforming.

"Looks healed, finally," the Healer said, addressing his notepad, rather than Harry. Harry pulled his robes back on and tossed them straight. Shankwell said, "Versa is still interested in learning Staunching from you. She is probably in the ward if you have the time right now."

"I'm due at training," Harry said, glancing at his pocket watch. "I can come back at 4:00, after training."

"I'll ensure Versa is here. Come to the staff room."

An owl was waiting for Harry when he reached the Ministry. Harry read the letter from Ron as he took his seat in the training room. Ron complained that his mum had taken him to the Healer twice and now blamed the twins for every small instruction Ron forgot while helping her around the house while on sick leave from work. Like I normally would remember which rows in the garden were potatoes and which mug Percy prefers for cocoa! Ron wrote, making Harry chuckle.

Upon his return that afternoon to the wizard hospital, Harry reported to the greetingwitch and was led away by a small old orderly. Harry followed the man's downy white hair and mole studded ears to the staff break room. The boisterous conversation stopped when Harry entered.

Versa rose gracefully, spirit-like, from the couch, trailing her long hair. "Mr. Potter."

"Call me Harry," he said, looking far down to meet her gaze.

As the other Healers and assistants looked on in curiosity, she faintly said, "Let's go to an empty office, shall we?"

The office was small but neatly ordered due to judicious use of shrinking charms. An entire wall-full of files had been reduced to a foot square set of dollhouse shelves. A giant magnifying glass bounced on an armature before it.

Versa gracefully held her hair to the side as she took one of the two chairs, reminiscent of Penelope. "Mulvie tells me-"


"Healer Shankwell, that is, told me a few things but I'd prefer you explain from the beginning, if you would, how this skill works."

Harry clasped his fingers in his lap, feeling vaguely nervous. "The shaman I learned it from in Finland says that it cannot be taught; one either is a Stauncher or they're not. I think though, from my own, er, observations, that it is tied to having a sense of Radiance in general. You know about that right?"

"That's where you can feel an object's owner in something metal," she said. "I know about that."

"Can you do it?" Harry asked. At her nod, he felt relieved that this would be easy. "Blood to me feels like a stronger kind of the same thing. When it's flowing freely, it is taking life away with it. I'm maybe not explaining this well," he said, but then noticed his companion had drifted away, eyes distant. Harry, remembering Munz dying, thought that working here in the hospital, constantly sensing all that radiance leaching away, would be difficult and wearing.

"Do you have a knife?" Harry asked, trying to sound brighter.

Versa, still distant, searched around in the desk and pulled out a shiny metal rod with a triangular blade screwed into the end of it. When she held it out to him, Harry said, "If you don't mind nicking yourself, I can Staunch it and you can see what it feels like.

She held her lithe, pale hand out and turned it one way and then the other as though thinking where best to make a cut. Making a fist she pressed the blade to slice into her thumbprint.

Harry unfocused his thoughts until the leaching radiance was clear. Around him, the building itself felt dank, saturated with a stale, sickly echo of the same thing. Harry gently pressed on the radiance with imaginary snow and the bleeding stopped.

"It feels cold," Versa commented. "Did you just release it?" she asked, intensely interested.

"Yes. Want me to do it again?"

"I will try it." She reached for the blade to reopen the new wound. "It will work on myself, correct?"

Harry scratched his cheek. "I think so. But you can try on me."

She dismissively said, "You're a patient."

Blood trailed thinly into her palm as she stared at the new wound, having no effect on it.

"Don't try too hard," Harry said. "It's instinctive. I imagine packing snow around the wound and pressing on it, as tight as I can if its a big wound."

She sighed, closed her eyes, stretched her shoulders, and in the end the bleeding stopped on its own.

"I think it would be easier to try it on me," Harry said, trying to sound more authoritative than he felt. He took up the blade. Versa used her wand to heal her thumb and winced faintly when Harry cut into his. A few seconds later, Harry could feel an invisible pressure on the cut. "You're getting it."

Two re-cuts later, she had it down easily. "I had to imagine an ice sculpture over your hand to make it feel cold to you."

"Well, it worked," Harry said.

With a ghostly, yet irresistible, touch, she pulled his hand over to heal it with a tap of her wand. She released his hand slowly because she had again drifted far away. "We certainly cannot practice with a Crucio, so I will have to make do when the next patient of that sort comes in."

"I think you'll do all right. You seem very sensitive."

She smiled, amused, "It is usually an insult when I hear that."

"I didn't mean it to be," Harry quickly said, which she accepted with a broader smile.

Immediately growing serious again, she said, "May I ask you a question?" At Harry's shrug, she went on, "I was not certain I wanted to have you come and teach me this. Mulvihill set it up today without informing me."

"Oh," Harry said.

"I did not imagine that someone who had killed so many could have any sense of such things."

Harry did not know what to say in his defense. She went on, "I remembered you caring for your father, whom it seems you healed rather than Hedgepeth." She waited for Harry's nod before continuing. "I wonder how you function as an Auror given that the harm you do to others must be immediately clear via this other Radiant sense."

Harry countered, "I wondered how you functioned here in this hospital without knowing how to Staunch."

She fell far away again. She probably would have let her question go, but Harry wanted to hear his answer too. "Aside from Voldemort I've never really killed anyone outright. I've killed accidentally in the heat of a spell battle. I've set demons on my enemies at a distance. Perhaps it isn't really different, because the result is the same, but . . . I couldn't just kill someone, one-on-one, if there was any kind of choice." With bloody vividness, Harry remembered resisting doing so with Avery despite believing that the man had just torn his world apart. That devastating internal struggle was the last thing he remembered before his mind had shut off.

Versa stroked her hair nervously, distracting Harry from his memories. "Delegating to demons . . ." she said, trying to take it in. "I would expect them to just come after you."

"They can't if one believes they can't." Realizing he made her nervous, Harry stood. "I'm due at home," he said to back out gracefully. "If you have any questions, you can owl me. I'm willing to help too, if you have a bad Cruciatus patient."

She nodded and Harry departed. On the way down the corridor he considered that given how uncertain Versa felt about him, she must be either brave or foolhardy to have agreed to be in a room alone with him. He wished everyone trusted him the way they did when he was smaller. But given the copious articles about his powers, that was unlikely to ever happen again. At least Tonks treated him the same as she always did. That thought alone made his heart lighter and put it in anticipation of seeing her at the Ministry.

- 888 -

The week crawled by while Harry counted off the days until he would have his own wand back again. He already thought of the brand new wand as his own because he fully expected it to perform exactly as his old one did. Drills frustrated him all week, and when Rodgers paired him with Tridant, he could barely match their newest apprentice for spell power. Harry expected Tridant to point this out, but the man had fallen silently focussed rather than brash.

After drills, Harry sighed as he stuffed his wand away into his pocket. Vineet, whom Harry had not noticed step closer, said, "I understand this frustration."

Harry shook himself out of his own concerns. "Yeah. Saturday my new wand is ready. I can barely wait."

The room emptied for lunch and Harry noticed Tridant slowing rearranging his books as though to stall or just because his mind was far away and he was unaware of what he was doing. Harry hung back. It was not that he preferred his new associate's original demeanor, but the change concerned him.

"How's it going?" Harry casually asked, expecting to easily draw the other out.

Tridant shrugged his broad shoulders. His lip twitched.

Harry stepped to the side, to physically get in the way of getting to the doorway. "Something wrong?"

Tridant shrugged again and did not meet Harry's gaze. He seemed to decide that Harry was not going to get out of the way unless he answered. "This is hard, it turns out."

"Er . . ." Harry hesitated, trying to find his way. "But you're doing fine."

A third shrug.

Harry scratched his ear, thinking. "Rodgers is hard on people when they are first starting out."

Tridant's voice dropped. "It's like he wants me to quit. He isn't so hard on the rest of you."

Harry did not believe that to be true. Reassuringly, he offered, "He already beat us to a pulp over the last year and doesn't think he needs to do that so much anymore."

Tridant scoffed. "Yeah, it's like he wants me to quit," he repeated, gesturing toward the door. "Didn't you hear him harping on my Titan again today."

"He may seem like that, but it's because he doesn't want to send anyone out unprepared. See, if one of us dies because we were unequipped, then he'd have to blame himself," Harry heard himself saying without forethought. "He doesn't want you to give up getting better."

"I had thought that block was easy," Tridant said, sounding more argumentative. "Do you know how long I've known that one. I used to show it off as a Fourth-Year at Hogwarts."

"Maybe you're too used to things being easy," Harry said, still just speaking thoughts as they popped into his head.

Tridant said sulkily, "This DID all use to be easy. I'm going to get booted I'm doing so terribly. I'd rather quit first."

Harry held back a smile because things were now clear. It was apparently possible for incoming apprentices to be too cocky. "He can't boot you until your first review, which is months away. You have tons of time to work on things."

"And to think I used to look forward to examinations. I'm going to be the bottom score." He appeared horrified at the thought.

"You're alone in your year. You will also have the top score. Out of our year, Aaron or I will be on the bottom," Harry assured him.

"Yeah, but you can't get booted."

Harry's brows went up. "Oh, don't bet on that," he said vehemently, thinking of recent suspicion of him. He sighed and said, "Look. You're taking Rodgers' exacting teaching too personally. He just doesn't want anyone ever slacking. Everyone here is as good as you are. You're not going to be the best anymore without a ton of work."

"Nicely spoken," a voice said from the doorway. Tonks stood there, leaning jauntily on the doorframe, arms crossed, looking very cute.

Grumbling, head down, Tridant asked, "How long you been standing there?"

Tonks laughed. "Long enough. Harry was doing fine and I didn't want to interrupt."

Tridant headed for the door, head still low. Tonks moved her foot to let him pass. To Harry she said, "You free this evening?"

"Yes. Absolutely."

"I'll see you after second shift, then. Your place."

- 888 -

Harry sat alone in the hall, the house settling into night around him, books stacked on the floor at his feet. Snape and Candide, returning from dinner with her parents, were a welcome distraction. Snape's dismayed expression made Harry hold off on asking questions until Candide had claimed exhaustion and gone to their room.

"How'd it go?" Harry quietly asked, wary of the answer.

Snape tilted his head noncommittally and, after a hesitation, stepped to the couch to sit across from Harry.

"Did you survive, at least?" Harry asked.

"Their expectations were not clear from the outset, and they remain obscure."

Parroting, Harry said, "You should have sufficient skills to-"

Snape cut him off with a slash of his hand. "I do not wish to be quoted at."


Harry held back, but finally had to ask, "Wedding still on?"


Harry waited for more, but was disappointed. "They were hoping for something different?" he prompted.

"That is an understatement."

Trying to help, Harry said, "They don't know the real you."

"They do not wish to know the real me," Snape pointed out darkly.

"True," Harry conceded. He still had the Manual of Uniform Ministry of Magic Report Scribing open in his lap. He closed it and set it aside. "Maybe I should have gone along."

Snape nodded, black eyes far away. "Things would have gone better, but it would have been a sham." He sat back farther and sank into the cushions, his formal robes flowing around him like a wrinkle on the flat, black suede. "As flattered as I have been in the past by your willingness to take up the role of my personal shield, I cannot tolerate it when it is not necessary to retain my liberty. I need to muddle through this myself, even if it means stooping to pretending to be something I am not to smooth the way."

Harry sighed. One of the candles sparked and sputtered as it leaked a river of wax down over the brass holder, which quickly turned opaque. Harry reached in and pinched out the flame before the wick burned up completely. He shook his burned fingers, then touched them to his tongue.

Snape shook his head, amused. "If I took you along, they would later swear you were not truly magical."

Harry ignored the dig. "I'm always willing to be your shield."

"I would rather follow your previous advice and cease to care. I abhor this position of being forced to give a damn."

"Did it really go that badly?" Harry asked.

"Oh, it was perfectly polite," Snape said sounding nauseated. He stretched an arm out forward to more easily sit up. He struggled with that as he said, "But I am fully aware of what they were thinking. They even had moments of doubting the story about you."

Harry laughed lightly. "Then I insist on coming along next time."

Snape stood. "Next time will be the wedding," he said with finality.

"Well, you got it over with, anyhow," Harry offered, wishing Snape felt better.

"And Candide believes it went swimmingly."

"Then you are set."

Snape made a dubious noise of assent and departed up the stairs.

Hours later, candles gutting, air chilled, Harry still sat reading his assigned books. He did not want to look at the clock yet again because it would force him to decide if perhaps Tonks' had forgotten or if she had been hurt or was even now under duress.

When Tonks did appear in the dark hall, Harry greeted her with, "You're very late." It was after 1:00. Just a single candle remained, wick nearly drowned. He had been napping lightly, books stacked out of the way on the floor.

"I'm sorry, Harry," she said. "Something came up." The couch tilted as she sat down beside him. She let out a long sigh and he relented on his annoyance and put his arm around her.

"Is it something you can tell me about?" Harry asked.

"It's Debjit Thanakar; something odd happened," she sounded far away as though still trying to puzzle something out. Harry could hear her breathing more clearly than he could see her.

"What happened?"

"He's been at St. Mungo's, growing a new foot and recovering from his other wounds. They finally gave us permission this week to move him back to the Ministry for interrogation. He seemed fine when Kingsley and I fetched him to the dungeon but when we went to move him to one of the interrogation rooms, he was completely out of it. Disoriented and confused like he'd been potioned. We spent the last three hours trying various antidotes to no effect."

"Do you want Severus' help?"

"We decided that it isn't a potion."

"Memory charm?"

"No evidence of one. Or a Confusion charm or anything related." She groaned and tossed her head back.

Harry wanted to help figure out what had happened, but the scent of her, even after a long stressful day, wasn't something he could ignore. "Why don't we go up to my room? Your silencing charm is pretty good."

She chuckled in a way that made the center of Harry go liquid like the core of the remaining candle.

Next Week: Chapter Four -- Battle in Darkness

A long, empty time passed. A car roared by on the crossing road, pulling the hum of the motorway closer. Harry was about to knock again when he heard movement inside, shifting back and forth behind the door as though the source of it rocked side to side, uncertain.

The door clicked and swung open, creaking of course. An alabaster face appeared in the opening, a young woman, expressionless except for her wide eyes.

"Hi," Harry said. "I, uh, I wonder if I could have a word with you?"

The person did not respond. The face glanced back behind itself, then again at Harry, long black hair swishing. Harry decided that he needed a bit of Legilimency here, and since the young woman was staring openly at him, he had lots of time. The resulting sense of terror nearly made him drop his wand. He gripped it tighter, eyes also wide now. Her face gave away none of the extreme battle going on inside her head. A battle of wills raged behind her grey eyes as though two personalities wanted to dominate fully and would not give ground for even the smallest action until utterly winning out. She continued to stare.

Author's Notes:
Writing is going well. Should have 4 posted next weekend again. Chapter 6 we get into the main plot arc.

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Chapter 4: Battle in Darkness
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Chapter 4 — Battle in Darkness

Friday night, Harry reported for his field shadowing. Ever since Mr. Weasley had learned about him and Tonks, Harry rarely got paired with her, and this evening was no exception. In the Aurors' office he found Blackpool sitting at Tonks' desk, waiting for him. Rogan and Shacklebolt were hard at work at their own desks, Shacklebolt with two open files hovering beside him to avoid cluttering his desk.

"Should we pick out an assignment?" Blackpool asked Harry. She seemed in better spirits than previous shifts so Harry eagerly assented.

Her face twisted amusingly as she fingered each assignment slip beside the log book. "Mysterious lights not over swamp, nah . . . domestic dispute elevated out of Obliviatorobliviator squad . . . hm, that one should have been closed by now . . ."

"It has been," Shacklebolt said from where he sat at his desk, battered quill in hand. "That is the closed pile."

Blackpool glanced up from the slip she had just picked up. "Oh, how did Repeat odd report intercepted from Muggle police in Burnipsbie turn out?" Harry glanced at the slip, wondering why she thought it interesting.

"I closed it, don't worry about it," Shacklebolt snapped, startling Blackpool and bringing Rogan's head up out of his own quill-work.

When Blackpool simply stared at him in surprise, he waved the slip out of her grasp to his own, and bundled it up in his palm before turning back to his research. Blackpool shrugged after a second and pulled out a slip from the pile on the other side of the log book.

"Probable magical trickster loose in Loch Ness . . . Oh boy."

"That one keeps floating to the top," Rogan said, grin clear in his voice. "No one seems to want it."

"We'll take it," Harry said, taking away the slip. "We'll need the brooms," he said grabbing up the two nicest ones propped beside the door and grabbing Blackpool by the arm to Disapparate to an empty overgrown field far from any significant city.

"I didn't want that one, Potter," Blackpool grumbled.

"Nor do I," Harry said, handing her a broom. "I want to see what is up in Burnipsbie."

"Oh. Did you get the road and number?"

Harry nodded, considering where he could closest Apparate into. "Er, except you're in charge," he said, sounding suddenly uncertain.

"Well, yeah, but I'd like to check that out too." She pulled out a pair of flying gloves and began pulling them on. "Not like Mr. Shacklebolt to lose his stiff calm like that. Odd."

"That's what I thought."

She propped her broom on its twigs and adjusted her grip on it as though to stretch out her gloves. "So, I can get us about ten miles off from Burnipsbie."

"Do you think we should go to Loch Ness first, as cover?"

"Let's go after. I don't think Shacklebolt will check up on us right away."

Harry worried otherwise, but she was in charge.

Blackpool said, "I like your suspicious way of thinking."

"I can't help it at this point."

Blackpool laughed and took hold of Harry's arm.

After a pleasant evening flight accompanied by the orange glory of the setting sun, they circled over the village of Burnipsbie, a stain of lights on the darkened earth as though the snaking necklace of the motorway had leaked into the rolling sheep fields.

They landed at the edge of the houses and Blackpool left her broom with Harry and walked into a pizza takeaway to ask for directions to Pollen Gate. With a jangle of the bell on the door, she soon came back out and around to the dark side of the building where Harry waited.

"Said the road is five over and that he hoped dearly that I did not want number sixty-four because everyone living there is right insane. 'Creepy' he said. They play rock-paper-scissors to see who gets stuck delivering there, and they order frequently."

"Hm," Harry said, hoping for more clues. "Did he say anything else?"

"They always order quadruple meat and spinach on their pizza. Apparently the steak house doesn't deliver."

They stood, each in their own thoughts, until a car pulled up in the last space on the end, illuminating their dark corner. Blackpool smoothly slipped the brooms behind her back, out of view.

"Well, let's go," she said soberly.

As they walked, Harry said, "Shacklebolt didn't seem to be under an Imperio, did he?"

Blackpool shook her head as she strode with purpose. "He seemed the opposite of far away and slow to me. His pupils weren't dilated."

They soon reached the correct street and stood by silent agreement behind two large tree trunks in the empty lot opposite. Sixty-four was the last house on the road. It stood forlorn, darker than the sky behind it, with only dim lights showing in a few windows as though candles were in use. The remaining windows were endlessly black. The shutters hung crooked and the slate roof had jagged rows of missing shingles like open wounds. Harry shivered.

"Magical household?" he asked of the candlelight as a swarm of swifts dodged by, seeming to avoid the house opposite in their dance.

"Wasn't color coded as such on the slip."

Silence fell again. "How about we come back during the day?" Harry proposed. "Say, around about noontime."

Blackpool laughed. "Some Aurors we are." She laughed more. Growing serious again, she said, "Kingsley got away unscathed. Let's get a closer look."

"Shacklebolt had something going on," Harry pointed out as they stepped onto the cracked Tarmac, Harry felt a wave of aversion and he instinctively grabbed for Blackpool. His ungainly grab came up with the shoulder of her sleeve, which slipped free of his grasp.

"What is it?" she whispered.

Harry waved for her to slide sideways, but there was no cover on either side of the house, just flat dry ground interspersed with ragged patches of dead grass, as though the occupants desired to see who approached. She gestured for them to go back to the relative security of the trees where they had started.

"Potter?" Blackpool prompted. "You're spooked and that can't be good."

"I feel the, uh, I feel evil when I get too close to that house."

"This your curse-nose going off?" she asked, wand held at read, aimed at the doorway across from them.

"Worse. It's like the underworld leaking through." He breathed in and it did smell too earthy. "Can you smell it?"

"Smells like the country to me."

"Would you be willing to let me approach the house alone? I get an early warning and know when to back off."

She rubbed her chin, considering him and the house alternately. Twilight was passing into real night, and now the sky glowed only from the city lights, miles off. A large black bird or a bat flapped around the chimneys before fluttering off.

"If you stay in view, sure. I can cover you from here. If you leave my sight, I'm coming after you," she threatened.

Harry jogged across the road and up beside the steps where he could peek in the front window. He rolled his wand in his fingers, wishing it were his new one. The aversion had eased somewhat, so Harry canceled the Obsfucation charm, waited for the cold fingers of it to subside, and knocked on the door.

A long, empty time passed. A car roared by on the crossing road, pulling the hum of the motorway closer. Harry was about to knock again when he heard movement inside, shifting back and forth behind the door as though the source of it rocked side to side, uncertain.

The door clicked and swung open, creaking of course. An alabaster face appeared in the opening, a young woman, expressionless except for her wide eyes.

"Hi," Harry said. "I, uh, I wonder if I could have a word with you?"

The person did not respond. The face glanced back behind itself, then again at Harry, long black hair swishing. Harry decided that he needed a bit of Legilimency here, and since the young woman was staring openly at him, he had lots of time. The resulting sense of terror nearly made him drop his wand. He gripped it tighter, eyes also wide now. Her face gave away none of the extreme battle going on inside her head. A battle of wills raged behind her grey eyes as though two personalities wanted to dominate fully and would not give ground for even the smallest action until utterly winning out. She continued to stare.

Harry pushed the door gently inward. This tore her gaze to the door, and she released it, hand frozen in space as though she still held the edge of it. She stood stock still in a two-story hall in a grey nightie with torn frills, wholly Muggle. Harry gave an okay sign behind his back, hoping in the dim light that Blackpool could read it.

A shrill voice grated on Harry's suppressed memories of the Dursley's as an older woman stalked into the hall. "What is this, Margaret?" she asked, eyes also wide as she glared down her nose at Harry. She was taller than him and wore a ragged but ancient dress with a hoop skirt. She pushed the outside door closed, concentrating the musty odor. The dim light sucked all the color out of her dress so, combined with her pale skin, she seemed a ghost.

Harry, having nothing to lose, said, "I'm an old friend of Maggie's from school."

"Margaret is not allowed visitors. You should go." She pointed a boney finger at the door she had just closed.

Thin fingers tugged on Harry's arm from Margaret's side. Thinking quickly, Harry said, "I just haven't seen Maggie around in so long . . ." That seemed a pretty safe bet. The old woman grew calculating. Harry Legilimized her too, wondering at her strangely increasing calm. He had rather a major struggle not to react to visions of someone mentally auditioning various means of killing him. The vision cycled from kitchen knives and stabbing to hatchets and blood to ropes and blue faces.

"Of course," the woman said calmly as the vision wound back to thoughts of long knives. "Why don't you take him up to your room, Margaret, dear."

Harry held his expression utterly flat, which was the best he could do, and assumed he looked just like the daughter. The woman turned away, dragging the ragged edge of her gown as she glided off, probably to the kitchen. The thin fingers tugged plaintively on Harry's arm again and he let himself be led to the far end of the hall. At the end, the stairwell wrapped around, heading upward back toward the door. Harry turned and stepped up and just before it went out of view, saw the door silently opening again.

Knowing that Blackpool followed, Harry held fast to his small wand and plodded up each step, senses fully alert. At the top another ghostly figure darted out of a side room. "Is it pizza?" a small boy frantically asked. Harry lowered his wand, sputtering faintly with the blasting curse he had nearly used.

"No," the sister simply answered. The first she had spoken.

The boy swallowed, looked about to cry, and ran back into his room.

Harry pushed down the thoughts of why Shacklebolt thought this sufficient to let alone because he could not spare the attention. He and Margaret stepped along a thick runner and halfway along went into a girl's bedroom. A candle shed welcome warm light around the high-ceilinged room. The curtains, canopy and various frills still powerfully exuded their quaintness, but they drooped, leeched of color by dust and time. The girl sat on the bed and clasped her hands between her knees. The battle still went on, Harry assumed. Even in the orange light, her skin stretched translucent and colorless over her features.

Harry, wand still firmly in hand, knelt before her. "Margaret?" he prompted gently. "What is going on?"

The battle raged harder and she shook her head. The door moved silently and Harry had to squint to see even a prismatic outline of the Obsfucated Blackpool taking a position beside the door.

Relaxing just faintly, Harry took one icy hand and wondered with a start of his already active nerves if she could be an Inferae. No, he could feel a pulse. He bit his lip to try another deeper round of Legilimency but Margaret looked away, at the window. Harry turned that way as well, and stood instinctively with a jerk of surprise. Previously, darkness and a few lights had shown outside but now dense glowing fog pressed tight to the glass.

Harry stepped back and raised his wand. He felt sleepy and violently shook his head. A strange sound of delight came from beside the door, presumably from Blackpool. Harry found himself bending to drop his wand on the floor, and this frightened him enough that he fell to his knees to take it up again while forcefully Occluding his mind. His thoughts cleared and the room stabilized. Something fleshy collapsed to the floor behind him and Margaret now lay back on the bed, tugging her nightie away from her neck as though suffering from heat stroke. One of her hands stretched out as though to greet someone at the window.

Harry, holding his mind Occluded, stepped back farther as the fog leaked in through the cracks in the old window and began to coalesce. The aversion returned, making him hunch to fight running. The glowing mist gathered densely, darkened and became a tall man in a cloak. He did not turn to look at Harry, but approached the bed and its hypnotized occupant. Before reaching the bed, he spun away and stalked toward the door, eliciting a groan of dismay from the vicinity of the bed.

The figure rotated its head, mouth wide as though tasting the air. The vampire's long teeth were quite apparent as it did this. Harry held his breath, wanting to see enough evidence so that there would no argument later that this vampire was fully rogue and had therefore lost its rights.

The man-creature pawed around on the floor in search of Blackpool, frantic as though hungry for what must smell far healthier than the other victim in the room. The candle flickered as though in a breeze, white teeth flashed as the vampire moved to bite down on what he had found by feel and Harry blasted him against the dresser in the far corner.

Vampires were indestructible, and what would have knocked out anyone else did not phase this man. He rose up inside his cloak and swelled even taller as his gaze burned red with anger. Harry felt his Occlusion slipping due to his own anger and the vampire's head tilted as though interested in Harry's ability to resist him.

"It's over," Harry said.

The man laughed. "Oh, is it? How quaint."

"You're coming with me. You've gone rogue and that's against the rules."

"The Rules," the vampire mocked. "Whose rules are we onto now? Do you know how old I am?"

"Old enough that you should have been dead long ago; I'll give you that," Harry said.

The man laughed again, more mocking. "You have no idea how to catch a vampire, let alone the king of vampires. Look at you."

It was true that Harry did not have the kind of trap he had once seen a coven use. "You have no power over me," Harry pointed out.

"True. That is rare, I'll grant you that."

Harry shot a binding curse at the man, but he flapped out of it as a bat. Harry put a prison box around him but he slithered out of it as a mist, laughing.

"Oh, such games used to amuse me no end. But you are a puny mortal wizard. A mere insect, existing for just a flicker of time."

Harry thought fiercely. "I'm still stronger than you," Harry mocked, hoping to delay him. "There are rules, Ministry of Magic rules, that you are required to follow as a controlled magical creature."

The man snorted, his smooth, ordinary face wrinkling in disgust. "I was around when your Isles were one continent connected to rest of Europe; that is how long I have been alive. Do not insult me." He did sound angry, which suited Harry just fine, since he needed to buy time and hoped that meant he would keep arguing.

The vampire flicked his cloak tightly around him as though thinking of departing. "This place has been drained of the life that does more than sustain me. I have delayed finding a new home too long. If I want to truly live, I need flesh fresher than this." He glanced covetously at the heap on the floor where Blackpool was reappearing as hazy arcs of black robe.

"You're not going anywhere," Harry said.

"Bah!" The vampire mocked. "Goodbye pathetic wizard," he said and dropped through the floor.

Harry felt the interstice to the Dark Plane crack open and close again. He followed, heart racing. He had a hold of the vampire by the wrist before he could stride more than two steps away across the greyness of the Dark Plane. The Vampire gaped at Harry. Around them creatures scuttled closer, curious.

It was Harry's turn to laugh. "I told you you weren't going anywhere."

Harry's quarry recovered from his surprise and scooped his hand toward himself. The disgusting creatures closed in, obeying the command. Harry faced the nearest ones down and they hesitated but others climbing over the first, snarling, clapping their jaws together. Their oily breath reeked of rot and death.

Harry Disapparated to the area of the Dark Plane opposite the Ministry, taking the Vampire with him. Temporarily, they left the creatures behind. Vampires could not Disapparate, so Harry hoped this one was disoriented. He did glance around in consternation before glaring at Harry, who tightened the grip on his arm and pulled his wand.

The vampire's eyes pulsed red at the sight of the wand and he fell, dragging Harry with him. Harry felt flattened, curled up, and towed through a row of cracks by his arm, but they arrived exactly where he wanted to be: in the Ministry dungeon. Seeming frantic, the vampire tried to shake his arm loose from Harry's grasp. Harry twisted the arm behind his quarry's back and threw him up against the damp stone wall. He pressed his wand into the back of his ribs, wishing dearly that it was his own wand so he did not have to make any empty threats.

"I suspect that if I carve your heart out, it will at least slow you down," he hissed into the man's ear. "It takes you three seconds to get to mist form; it only takes me half a one to spell a cutting curse."

"Hey, whatcha got?" Horace, the squat wizard who managed the dungeon, sauntered up and asked. "I didn't see you come in," he then said in alarm, glancing back in the direction of the heavy door and scratching his head.

"He slipped us in," Harry said, hoping that covered it.

"Oh, yeah, they're like that." He pulled a narrow, battered log book out of a belt pouch. "Name?"

The vampire didn't reply, so Harry pressed the wand harder into his flesh. It had to hurt. "Fueago."

"Last name, first name?"

"That is my name. It is as old as time you imbecile-"

"I need to get him somewhere secure," Harry interrupted to say.

"Oh, yeah." Horace drew a necklace out of his pouch and draped it over Harry's head. "Isle Mayfay has a facility for him." He used his wand to tap the fleur de lis charm on the necklace and the dungeon twisted away. Harry barely kept hold of his prisoner as they flew and rotated a long time, landing hard on what turned out to be a pier.

Waves slapped against the sides of the neat straight stones. A dark fog hung over the water, obscuring anything farther than ten feet off. Flood lights illuminated the scene from behind and Harry torqued his head around to look up at the fortress that was L'île de Cachot Méfait, the French wizard prison. He dragged the vampire to his feet and, maintaining his wand point between his ribs, pushed him in the direction of the great doors.

Salt crystals blossoming in the dips of the stone crunched underfoot as they went. Harry did not see a knocker so he was glad when the right-hand door turned open on a central pivot as they approached.

A Frenchman about Harry's height, and carrying a crystal-tipped pike, approached as they entered the vast entry hall. Harry said, "I have a prisoner," but the guard simply stared at him.

Fueago rattled off a long string of haute French that raised the guard's eyebrow. The guard began to study Harry with suspicion.

"What are you saying?" Harry demanded angrily, which only bolstered the narrowing gaze of the guard.

The vampire said, "You are a typically stupid Englishman. I told him I am bringing you into the prison, but you overpowered me outside."

Harry tightened his hold on the vampire and the guard set down his pike and put up his hands placatingly, at which point Harry realized that his only negotiating power at the moment was that he appeared to be holding someone hostage.

"I'm from the Ministry of Magic. I'm bringing this rogue vampire in . . ." But he was drowned out by a longer exchange of incomprehensible French.

"Shut up," Harry said to the vampire, and began dragging him farther inside. The guard thought this an acceptable direction, so, leaving his pike behind, he followed over the smooth stone. They passed over a narrow causeway where the sea slapped at the bottom of long trenches on either side. Beyond, the floor changed to black slate. The Vampire struggled with him at the most vulnerable point, so Harry shoved him to the stone, wand in the center of his back.

"I'll do it," Harry threatened. "You've certainly lived long enough for one man." In that instant, his curse sense went off and he ducked as a spell from the guard sizzled overhead. "What are you doing?" Harry yelled at the man.

The vampire, far stronger than expected, tossed Harry aside as though he were a doll and got to his feet. He pointed at Harry, who was occupied for a desperate breath with pulling his leg out of the waves and climbing to safety. The vampire continued to give the guard instructions in French. The pike leveled at Harry, who did not want to strike back, but had a counter in mind once he got his wand at ready. Running feet delayed the guard's actions. Harry, sensing that the vampire did not want to cross to the slate floor, leapt to grab his wrist and tossed him there, using all of his strength. Both of them tumbled onto the damp, slippery stone.

The lead man of the new guards, identifiable by the ribbons on his silver tunic, stepped in front of Fueago before he could crawl back to the brown stone causeway. Fueago began demanding things in French. The guard almost lifted a hand down to help him up and then glanced at Harry. "Ah, Harry Potter, what a pleasant surprise." He reacted quickly, pointing at the vampire, saying, "Is 'e with you?"

"My prisoner," Harry said, relieved enough his knees went vaguely wobbly.

The leader withdrew his hand and signaled for the guards just as the vampire changed into mist. Harry raised his wand but a barrier kept the mist on the black slate side of the causeway.

"Eet is all right," the guard assured Harry, and the mist, after shifting frantically back and forth, became a man again.

The vampire began arguing in French again while trying to step back over the line. Harry approached, helping to box him in.

"Eh, so you say," the head guard said mockingly, gesturing for him to be lead deeper into the prison.

Harry took the vampire's elbow when he hesitated moving, saying with a smirk, "You may be ancient, but I'm famous."

At the lift, which was just a solid stone platform with no sides, the guards took over management of the prisoner. The head guard did not stop talking to Harry the whole way, but Harry did not mind at all.

"I 'ave always wanted to meet you, Mr. Potter. The warden will be thrilled too, I know because he has your picture on his wall, right between Meester Paul-Marie Verlaine and Meester Zherri Lew-es. Perhaps you could sign it for him . . . if it is not so much trouble?"

"Of course," Harry assured him.

Down, down they went into the bowels of the rock. It was hot down here and Harry hoped they had not gone so deep that the core of the earth was making things warmer. They stopped finally and had to duck exiting the lift into a narrow corridor cut into the rock. In a small office where the tables, shelves and even the chairs were carved directly in the rock, Harry was instructed to sit at a desk.

"Just some papers-work and we will take care of this animal for you."

Parchments Harry could not read were placed before him. "Can you summarize these?"

"Oh, yes. This is the Assignment of Overseeing, which means that you cannot have 'eem back without some other papers signing. This is the Statement of Ill Deed, which you can fill in English, no? Since only another Englishman will need to read eet."

Harry began filling things in, finding it hard to cast his mind back to the horrors of the house. It occurred to him now with a jolt that he had left Blackpool behind, unconscious with the murderous lady of the house. He swallowed hard and wrote faster.

The vampire was slouched on rock chair in the corner, looking desolate and harmless. "I just remembered something I should have done," Harry said, handing the parchments back and standing up.

"There are a few more papers and the photograph for the warden . . ." the guard said.

"I'll come back," Harry insisted. "I really have to check on my partner." He fingered the portkey on the necklace, close to panic so much adrenaline flowed in his veins.

"I will activate it for you, but it will not work here. Up above, only." He pointed, sounding like he wished to calm Harry.


On the lift ride up, Harry thought about the procedures that he had not had the opportunity to work within. He should have told the guard in the Ministry dungeon to inform the Auror's office. That's what he should have done. Miserable, Harry rode upward as floors and side tunnels came and went, sliding below their smooth quiet platform.

Beyond the causeway, the head guard said, "We can finish the papers-work, but the warden will be sorrowful to not have met you."

"I'll come back as soon as I can," Harry insisted. "I would like a tour."

The man brightened considerably, eyes glittering with pride. "I would be honored to give you one."

The portkey returned Harry to the Ministry Dungeon. Running, he passed Horace, who was back at his tiny desk, hunched over something small. Harry dropped the key beside an elaborate origami of a ball and chain that was in progress, and made his way to the atrium, from which he could Apparate away.

Harry arrived, wand out, back in the candlelit bedroom, which was empty. He scrambled down to the dark lower floor, where voices could be heard. He found Blackpool filling out interview sheets with the family around the kitchen table. The scent of pizza filled the air.

"You're all right," Harry breathed out, choking on the words in his relief.

"Yeah, Potter. I figured you must have been green enough to give chase to a vampire."

Harry's foremost concern was the older woman's demeanor and whether it had improved above murderous. The woman sat, arms crossed, looking cold and aloof, tea untouched. She just seemed aggrieved now.

Blackpool said to the woman, "You really should see a surgeon. Get a transfusion."

"We will handle things our way," the woman said.

Margaret sat, nibbling on a pizza crust, saying nothing. Her brother was sleeping on his arm draped over the table. Harry stepped closer and bent down to ask the girl, "You all right?" After a very long pause, she nodded. To Blackpool, Harry said, "We need the Obliviator squad."

"After the interviews."

"Or, we need them for the trial, don't we?"

"We'll never catch him, Harry."

"Who, the vampire?" The room jerked as though Harry had said the name Voldemort three years ago. "I dropped him at the prison just now. In fact, I need to go back and finish the paperwork."

Blackpool set the quill down as well as the crust of pizza in her other hand. "You captured that bastard? Single handed?"

"Yeah, why not? I didn't want him to get away."

"Harry, Vampires can slip through a crack in the floor, barrier or not. If you can't find their sleeping place and get them warded all to hell with garlic without so much as making a sound or giving yourself away to one of the creepy companion creatures guarding them, you can forget it."

"I dropped him at the French prison just now."

"You put him in prison?" Margaret's faint voice asked from the end of the table.

"Yes," Harry assured her, wanting badly to reach through her terror. "He won't be coming back."

Blackpool picked the quill back up and flicked it around. "Well, in that case, yes, we need them for the trial. Or at least one of them. The others we can wipe." She glanced around the three of them, sitting still as though simply waiting to be victims again. "We'll keep the girl, I think." Blackpool stared additionally at Harry. "You really got him?"

"Yes," Harry insisted, not insulted because she sounded truly amazed.

"Well, go and fetch Reggie, Tonks or Mr. Weasley. With the vamp gone we can more easily deal with the issue of Kingsley."

"I forgot about Kings- . . . Shacklebolt," Harry said, struggling to keep up with events. "I'll get someone."

Back at the Ministry, Harry found Shacklebolt at his desk, reviewing files and looking stern, but mostly himself. Harry had no idea how complete the psychic control of a vampire was. It had not been covered in their training, perhaps because it occurred only rarely. He gave Shacklebolt a nod and started to back out of the room.

"Find anything in Loch Ness?" Shacklebolt asked, eyes intent when they turned upon Harry.

"No," Harry said, and slipped away before a followup question could get asked.

Mr. Weasley sat in his office, dictating a letter to someone in the Goblin Liaison Office. He held up his hand until he finished the sentence and grabbed hold of the dictation quill, which twitched as Harry said, "I need to talk to you and we need someone at the scene." Out of the corner of his eye, Harry saw Shacklebolt approaching, looking determined about his destination, which was clearly Harry. Harry slipped his wand into his hand in a way that the Auror could not see, but Mr. Weasley had full view of.

"Harry?" he questioned, sounding concerned.

Harry stepped back into the corridor and to the wall, needing the space to defend himself, if necessary.

"Harry, put that away," Mr. Weasley cautioned, sounding fatherly.

Harry faintly shook his head. Shacklebolt looked between them but Harry had his conveniently small wand completely inside his sleeve now. Harry was not certain what to do. There were code words for this situation, both Auror ones and Order ones, but Shacklebolt would know all of them. Pained, Harry quickly tried to think of something. In a battle of trust between him and Shacklebolt there was no question who would win and already, Mr. Weasley looked doubting of Harry's rightmindedness.

"Maybe I'll speak to you later, sir," Harry firmly said, hoping his boss would catch the hint.

Mr. Weasley stood and said, "If you need someone on-site, Rodgers will be returning shortly. That way Kingsley can cover the office."

"I thought you didn't find anything," Shacklebolt said, sounding gravely suspicious.

"Well, it's hard to explain," Harry hedged, wishing he were trusted more and having no good ideas for how to proceed. If he simply attacked Shacklebolt, he was going to end up fighting him and Mr. Weasley.

Footsteps approached and Rodgers came into view. Harry could not have been more pleased to see him. "Can I talk to you, sir?" Harry asked, not liking how pleading he sounded.

Rodgers pulled his head back in surprise, but he then gestured gamely back down the corridor.

In the training room, Harry frustratingly said, "I don't know the procedure for this. And I just found out how little Mr. Weasley trusts me still."

Annoyance overwhelmed Harry's temper before Rodgers dryly asked, "Is Arthur what you wish to discuss? I'm not certain there is a protocol for increased trust within a department of the Ministry."

Harry gave him a cock-eyed glance and said, "You sound like Severus, you know. No, that isn't what I wish to discuss. Shacklebolt is compromised and I don't know what the procedure is for that."

Rodgers grew serious and asked, "Compromised in what way?"

Harry explained about the vampire and Shacklebolt's behavior. "The vampire is in the French prison now, so he is no risk."

"You and Blackpool caught him by yourselves? Fueago is an old timer who comes in and out of the country but we've never been able to catch him."

Harry now realized that he had perhaps given too much away through his actions, but there had been no choice. "Yeah, we did. The family's in bad shape. Blackpool is still interviewing them, but after that we need an Obliviator squad."

Rodgers stepped toward the door. "Let's go take a look at the scene first to choose one to keep their memories for now."

"We did already."

Rodgers stopped and appeared more affectionate than Harry had ever seen. "You kids are coming along."

Rodgers' hand was on the door before Harry could remind him with: "Shacklebolt?" which he had to swallow because the Auror was behind the door when it opened. Harry raised his wand and the spells cancelled out between them, knocking Rodgers aside with the spell wash.

Shacklebolt's brown eyes were dark and unreadable as spells lashed out again and Harry had to resort to his best attenuated block, which did not quite hold with his badly matched wand. Pain sizzled over Harry's skin. Frantic that he could not defend himself, Harry squirmed when he felt a curse, nasty and rancid rising up as though from the floor, out of the earth itself. His mind flashed back two years to his torment by Crabbe and Goyle. He could smell the dark earth then too, along with the rot of leaves and twigs on the Forbidden Forest floor where he had writhed. Harry squashed this curse as he had done the one that day, by forcing it back down into the ground, where the only outlet it could find was the caster himself. Shacklebolt flickered and doubled over, but he recovered quickly, eyes blazing.

Rodgers pulled himself to his feet and shouted, "Kingsley, stop it!"

Footsteps approached in the corridor. The next curse, which had far less on it, Harry blocked normally, because it did not feel the same as the one he had squashed. His counter wavered worrisomely despite not having to withstand much. He tried to roll behind a desk for the next one; the desk was blasted aside, forcing Harry to cover his head with his arms. The room fell silent long enough for Harry to risk raising his eyes. Shacklebolt was in a binding curse on the floor with Rodgers bent over him, looking murderous which was normal hard anger for him.

"What the devil?" Mr. Weasley demanded. Other offices had emptied and come down to gawk.

Harry was working on sitting up when Rodgers asked, "Potter?"

"Yeah," Harry said, not sure whether to respond positively or negatively because he had not yet decided what exactly had hit him. Using a desk, Harry got to his feet while Rodgers explained the situation. Harry could only return a helpless look when Mr. Weasley turned an expression his way that implied Harry should have handled things differently.

Mr. Weasley instructed Rodgers, "Put him in interrogation until we can get an exorcist in here." He stalked off past a stunned Rogan, who slid inside to help.

Harry moved slowly until he could sit at the desk he was leaning on. He sat there, breathing, until he remembered that he had to get back to Burnipsbie. "Damn," he muttered, standing up and mustering the will to Apparate.

"What happened to you?" Blackpool asked when Harry stepped into the kitchen.

"Tangled with Shacklebolt."

"I'd have thought you could take him."

Harry gratefully took a seat at the table. "I will be able to tomorrow when I get my new wand. Stop me if I try."

"Excuses, excuses," she pleasantly said. "And the Obliviators?"

Harry stared at her, running recent conversations through his mind. "I'm not sure. I'll go check." It required great will to push himself to his feet, but he managed. "Things were a little crazy as you might imagine."

Later, at the debriefing when everything was straight and they all had returned to the Ministry, Harry felt sulky and used that as cover to give only scant details of his capturing the vampire. No one here knew he could slip into the Dark Plane and Snape had been adamant that he not let it be known.

When the comments came back around to marveling at Harry's feat, he said, "I need to return to the wizard prison. There's more paperwork. I told them I'd come back as soon as I could."

"Someone should go with you," Mr. Weasley said, glancing around. "I guess I will on my way home."

Harry held in his frown and stood slowly, still stiff from getting hit.

"Do you need a Healer, Harry?" Mr. Weasley asked solicitously, which set Harry off more.

He stubbornly replied, "No."

They fetched a prison portkey from the dungeon and arrived at the dark pier, surrounded by a now still ocean hugged by low, dense fog. Floodlights flicked on as they turned.

On the way to the doors, Harry wanted to say something along the lines of: "It's hard to function at the Ministry if no one trusts me." But he did not want to sound whiny, so he stewed instead. The guard escorted them inside without speaking and down into the core of the island. The warden's office erupted in a hearty welcome for Harry. It seemed the whole shift had awaited his return and perhaps others had come specially. The office was wall-to-wall with French prison guards all wearing smiles, some sheepish.

"Mr. Potter, please, please, 'ave a seat," the warden said. "Your papers are here, but you have been promised a tour, no?"

Harry, soothed by the fawning that Mr. Weasley had been forced to witness, said, "It's been a long day, I'm afraid. I think I will enjoy it more another time."

"Ah," the warden said in great dismay, hanging his head to the side. "Well, next time, then. I"m sure we will be seeing you often, no?" He rocked back in his own grand, leather swivel-chair and winked. He twirled his curled mustache while Harry finished the paperwork from earlier.

The warden spoke to Mr. Weasley instead while Harry wrote. "You are very lucky to 'ave this young man, eh?"

"Yes, yes, we are," Mr. Weasley said, dropping his hand on Harry's bent shoulder. "I'm not certain Harry is feeling so happy to have us, today."

Harry stared at the line where a translation had been added reading Place of Capture. He tried to hold his anger from draining away; he had been enjoying the just desserts of it, it turned out, and was not keen on losing it just yet. It leaked away nevertheless as Harry wrote out the village and address where he had first begun battling the vampire.

The warden was saying, "Brought thees monster in on 'ees own. Even we 'ave found records of this Fueago in our files going back eight-hundred years. We 'ave a medal in our Defense Division for such single-handed deeds. You 'ave one to give 'im, of course?"

"I don't need another medal," Harry said, turning the page over to fill in the Perpetrator Physiognomy section.

The guard let his mustache spring back to a spiral. "Ah, you are weighted down by too many already, I am sure."

Paperwork done, photo carefully lifted from a picture rail that ran along the ceiling and signed, they were led back to the lift by a guard who spoke no English. Harry sighed, his previous grudge building again as they rose up through the solid rock.

Mr. Weasley said, "I think it would be better if you said something, Harry."

"I wish you trusted me," Harry said, finding more sting in speaking than in stewing.

"We'll have to work on that," Mr. Weasley said amiably, forcing Harry to have to hold back on rolling his eyes.

It was three in the morning before Harry returned home. As he fell into bed, limbs stiff and painful, he wondered if he did indeed need a Healer. He stared into the darkness, thinking that he could wake Snape to take him to hospital. That sounded right awful, but lying there suffering was not terribly pleasant or rational either.

With a groan Harry rolled out of bed and, foregoing the dressing gown, padded down the corridor to knock on Snape's door.

"Sorry," Harry said when the door opened. "I hope you have a potion for . . . whatever it was I got hit with." He rubbed his forehead as he tried to remember.

"Are you hurt?" Snape asked.

"Well, not badly. I just want something so I can sleep."

Snape took Harry by the elbow and led him downstairs to the toilet where the potions were kept. The lamps in the small room stung Harry's eyes as he took a seat on the closed toilet.

"What did you get hit with?"

Harry was grateful that Snape was not angry at being woken. "Something Voltage class, I'm not exactly sure what."

"Not usually terribly harmful, just painful," Snape said. "Sure it was that?"

"Yeah. It had a lot on it. Came right through my counter. I cannot wait to get my wand tomorrow."

"That's a switch," Snape commented. "Who hit you?"


Snape peered at him over the top of a bottle. "What did you say to deserve that?"

"Long story. Suffice to say, no one trusts me."

Snape set the bottle down and pulled the step-stool over to sit upon it facing Harry. He considered his words before saying: "Trust is thin and fragile but requires great time and effort to construct, nevertheless."

"I know that. It's just hard to function without in the meantime."

"Drink this," Snape said, holding out a small glass of something rust colored.

Harry sipped the potion. "I'm sorry I had to wake you."

"Do not be," Snape stated firmly. "This is precisely the situation where I want you to do so. If I can TRUST that you will always do so I will quite frankly sleep better, which will far and away make up for any necessary interruptions."

Harry handed the glass back. "Thanks. I feel better already."

"You may have another half-dose in the morning if you need it."

"We don't have that potion at the Ministry. What is it?"

"Restricted," Snape said with a smirk.

"We have restricted potions, believe me," Harry pointed out with a grin.

"More restricted even than that," Snape insisted with a smug lift of his nose.

- 888 -

One benefit of Harry's difficult shift the night before was his resistance to having a wand identical to his old one had evaporated utterly. The chime of Ollivander's shop door rang a jolt of eager expectation through Harry; he wanted dearly to be properly armed again.

"I'll be with you directly!" a wavering elderly voice came from the far aisles of the shop's stock area.

Harry gazed around the work space in search of his wand and spied a long holly-wood wand on a rack above the workbench. The rack consisted of spaced pairs of brass lizard feet that gripped each wand. A fat poplar wand was held only by the points of the claws, making Harry wonder if the finish was drying on it.

"Ah, Mr. Potter," Ollivander intoned with clear affection. He had approached silently, startling Harry.

"Is that mine there?" Harry asked. "It looks long."

Ollivander gave each brass claw a flick of his finger and they opened with a spasm before stretching themselves as though to work out the kinks. Ollivander lifted the wand and held it out. "Fifteen and a half inches. That was the length of the feather you brought me to use."

Harry took hold of the wand and felt a rush of tingles through his arm. "It is long," he said, giving it a wave. The tip bent even more than the old one as it moved. "It's great, though," Harry breathed, giving it a try by making the window shade neatly retract. "It's just right." His vaguely aching joints made him regret not having it sooner.

Harry paid the balance and tried to find a pocket to fit the wand. "I need larger wand pockets," he said, dismayed.

Ollivander closed the till and placed his long hands on the counter between them to study Harry's problem. "Many wizards with wands of that size utilize a scabbard pocket, here, at the waist." He mimicked drawing a sword. "Or a pocket down the back." Here he lifted his age-stained hand over his head. "If you are adept at getting the wand to jump into your hand with a charm."

Harry practiced that motion and the other one. "One or the other will work, I'm sure." He stashed the wand in his sleeve, point caught in the hem like he often stored his old one. He could not bend is arm with it that way. "I'll have to do something." He flicked the wand back into his hand and caught it.

"Longer sleeves, perhaps," Ollivander suggested.

"Yeah," Harry said. "All of mine have grown a tad short, I think." But he liked the long wand. It exuded its own confidence as it swished through the air. Its weight made it feel stable and trustworthy, which overcame its inconvenience. "Thanks again," Harry said, slipping the wand back into his pocket and holding it in place with his hand.

Back at home, Harry showed off his wand. Held out over the worn, thickly revarnished dining room table, the wand gleamed with newness, unmarred by being dropped or bumped or other mishap.

"Very nice," Snape said, handing it back and returning to the brittle-paged tome open before him. It was all in hand-scrawled latin with no diagrams, so Harry could not make out the subject of it.

"It feels right," Harry said of his wand, but then tried to put it in his pocket, forgetting it would not fit. He set it out on the table as he sat down. "I'm not used to such a long wand." He picked the wand back up to fetch his books from the library. They zipped to him in record speed, slowing with exquisite control and resting flat without a sound.

"At least you are behaving like a wizard now," Snape observed dryly.

Harry feigned insult.

Snape said, "I'll be at Hogwarts tomorrow, now that you are properly armed. I have much to do there to prepare for the upcoming year." He turned a vellum page and leaned over the book, squinting at the small writing.

"What are you reading?" Harry asked, hoping Winky would bring a snack or tea or something if he sat there long enough.


Harry frowned at him but did not press. His idle mind returned to what had happened the day before, with his blocking Shacklebolt's curse without using his wand. It felt like a tenuous way to block curses, but same as the last time it had happened, he was grateful it had worked.

Harry mused, "I wonder how Shacklebolt's exorcism went."

This raised Snape's nose out of his book. "What?"

"Oh, I didn't tell you . . ."

"NO . . . you did not," Snape said, laying a strip of linen in his book to mark his place and pushing it to the side.

Tea appeared. Harry took time pouring some out. He was reluctant to recount how he had nearly revealed his secret skills to the Ministry.

"What happened?" Snape asked, sounding determined not to be denied.

"There was a vampire preying on a Muggle family, and well, let me go back to the beginning." Harry explained how his evening went, trying to sound remorseful about needing the Dark Plane to catch the vampire. He tied his story up with: "But I avoided saying exactly how I caught him. Hopefully at the trial, Fueago won't mention it. He didn't know who I was, so maybe he won't think he can get back at me that way."

Snape said, "He will not be brought back for the trial. It will be judged too risky. Take that offered tour of the prison and you will see how he is being kept. I expect in addition to the special wards around his cell block, he will be potioned nonsensical. A rather miserable way to spend eternity."

Harry exhaled. "So I'm safe?"

"I expect. As long as you continue to tell your story judiciously."

"What will the Ministry do if they find out?"

"I honestly do not know. It would depend upon your standing at the time. Best not to establish exactly the hard way." Snape set his tea cup down and pulled his book back before him. After a minute, he put his hand down hard and sat straight to say sternly, "I understand that you needed to capture the vampire. But do try to be more careful." He again returned to his book only briefly, then asked, "Does this werewolf Alastor mentioned move in and out of the underworld at will?"

Harry shook his head. "No. I have to let him come into this world."

The Floo surged with verdant flame, heralding Candide's return. Snape said, "That is something anyway."

The topic was dropped after that.

Next Week: Chapter Five

"I know those," Hermione stated. "And the red boxes and the purple boxes get repeated in the Grand Grades book in Professor McGonagall's office?" She ran her fingers over the intervening black column lines. "How do I choose which are important enough? There will be a lot of assignments."

Snape said, "That is up to you. The purple, obviously are the cumulative examinations you are expected to hold periodically. Some, like Vector, place a weighted mean of the preceding grades in the red columns. Some, like myself, tweak the grades based on the student's house."

Hermione gaped at him. "Do you really?"

Author's Notes:
Life (mostly working on my house and an art project) may get in the way of five coming out next weekend, but I'll try. Otherwise, look on Wednesday.

Chapter 5: Personal Peril
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Chapter 5 -- Personal Peril

Sunday, Harry headed to the Burrow for lunch. When he arrived on the lawn, Ginny and Ron were dodging about on broomstick, playing catch with a Quaffle. The sun sliced through the dense clouds in bursts of yellow beams as though teasing about coming out for real.

Upon seeing Harry, Ron gestured at the shed where Harry could find a broomstick. Mrs. Weasley shouted from the door that they should instead all come inside. On the way to the door, Ron nudged Harry in the ribs and said, "Ginny wanted to invite Aaron."

Ginny shot a deadly glance at her brother.

Harry asked, "You didn't, though?"

Ron replied for his sister, "She couldn't get the nerve up to owl him."

They stepped into the cozy and worn Weasley household. They plonked themselves down upon the ragged orange and green couches where the twins sat, unusually subdued.

Harry gazed around the rough, abused decor and wondered what Aaron would think of it. His thoughts were paralleled by Ginny asking, "So, would he have accepted an invitation?"

"I don't know. He grew up in decent wealth . . ." Harry trailed off, trying to take care.

"Oh," Ginny said. "He was dressed nice. Not many men dress nice . . . unless they're gay."

Harry said, "I shouldn't speak. I don't know if he'd care." The others were engaged in their own conversation, so he felt free to say, "It's possible that you'd care more than he would."

Ginny chewed her nail and glanced at her brothers' red heads all clustered together, talking low. She said, "You think he'd go out on a date with me?"

"I think Aaron would go on a date with anyone."

Ginny laughed. "Well, that's promising . . . and not so promising. I guess I should try. What kind of women does he like?"

"He likes to have fun, as far as I can tell."

"He sounds perfect." She stared off into the distance. "For a while . . ."

Other Weasleys arrived and the room grew louder. Harry glanced up each time, dreading to find Percy, but did not have the displeasure.

"Looking for someone?" Ginny asked.

Harry leaned forward and so did she. More privately, Harry said, "I'm kind of hoping Percy isn't coming."

"Mum didn't say he was and she usually makes a big fat deal out of it. Like we're all so much better off all together, even if that means tolerating him."

"Well," Harry thought better, "he IS family."

"Don't remind me."

She started to pull back. But Harry motioned her forward again. "Is he still dating Belinda? I thought maybe they'd broken it off."

"Thinking of hitching back up with her?" Ginny asked.

"No, just seemed like she was happier around the time I had heard that."

"I think they're still an item," she said consolingly.

Harry replayed the scene in the Minister's office. "Yeah. Seems likely." Harry reclined again, thinking back on the little coincidences with Percy at the Ministry, like his reviewing the Department of Magical Transportation's procedures just before the Floo network started always dropping him in the wrong place. Worst yet, around the time they stopped detecting illicit portkeys. Harry mulled over these old suspicions until Ginny handed him one of the two butterbeers she had gone and fetched.

He gestured for her to sit beside him. "What's Percy doing these days?"

She swallowed a mouthful of beverage. "The usual. Whatever Fudge tells him to. Sometimes I fantasize he might order him to drain the Thames or something impossible like that so we won't see him for a long time."

Even though she clearly disliked her brother, Harry found it hard to express his worst suspicions to her. "Maybe I'll stop in to see Belinda more often," Harry said. "Percy was there last time I did."

Ginny chuckled. "That would right irk him. He was so proud he had your former girlfriend. Paraded her around the Burrow here so bad the first time she didn't want to come back."

They sat down to a heaping meal at a long, crowded table. Harry passed along a plate of jacket potatoes brimming with butter to Ron and glanced at his boss, Mr. Weasley. He was the one Harry really should talk to about Percy. But Mr. Weasley, not two minutes later, raised his fork and said, "Well, unfortunate that we couldn't all be together this Sunday."

"Yeah, too bad," one of the twins muttered in a passable imitation of regret.

The Weasley parents bobbed their heads in sad agreement. Harry sighed and accepted a giant bowl of green peas.

A ruckus broke out at the end of the table, and Bill appeared dismayed by something. "You two just don't know when to give it up," he said.

"What?" Fred asked.

Bill held up his bread knife, which was welded to his spoon.

"Oh, right, that looks like something WE'D do," George offered. "Try your sister."

Ginny had held her face innocent, but now she grinned. Bill stood up and used his long arms to trade utensils with her. "You can have them."

Ginny pulled out her wand, but was interrupted by her mother scolding, "I do hope you haven't ruined that knife and spoon, dear."

"No, mum," Ginny insisted calmly. She waved a complicated spell at the utensil pair and a burning orange beam separated the two. She used her robe sleeve to hold onto the spoon without burning her fingers while she cleaned up the edge.

"Can you show me that spell?" Harry asked.

She demonstrated again to take the flash off the knife handle. Harry tried it a few times and managed to shorten his own butter knife by an inch. The cut off tip burned away to ash as it fell to the table.

"Okay, that I can't fix for you," Ginny said.

"That's all right, Harry dear," Mrs. Weasley said. "They're old anyway."

Harry shrugged at Ginny, who rolled her eyes. He awkwardly stretched his arms apart to work the spell until he at least cleaned up the foreshortened round end.

"That your new wand?" Ginny asked.

"Yup. It works great. I don't know if it's just the time without it, but it responds more naturally than I expect it to. Like it know what I'm thinking."

"It's a long one."

"It is. I'm still getting used to that. As you probably noticed." He spread his arms exaggeratedly to make the point, making Ginny and many others laugh.

"You, of all people, should have a good wand, Harry," Fred said.

"That's what Ollivander said when he put it on rush order."

"We love that guy," George said.

Fred followed with, "Yeah, we've never played any kind of prank on him . . . we must really love him."

- 888 -

When Harry came home from the Burrow, Harry faced the stack of his books still sitting out on the table where he had left them earlier in the hopes that he would get to them after breakfast. He settled in and propped the top one open before him. Again, Sunday early evening was upon him and his reading list had not shortened since Friday. It was as though a hex had been applied to it.

Dulcet voices filtered down from upstairs, distracting him. Halfway through the second chapter of a book entitled Paranormal Prankster Pop Psychology, footsteps trouped down the stairs and the voices grew clearer.

"Let's see the swatches in better light."

"You're right, the light isn't any better down here."

Harry's brow knotted up slightly. He stood and slipped silently to the doorway where he peeked around to observe the figures hunched around one of the small windows, discussing the merits of beads versus sequins. The couches were strewn with stretches of fabric in various shades of off white and what appeared to be tiaras. Harry rubbed his eyes but they still resembled tiaras.

Harry decided with a growing sense of bemusement that this was some kind of ritual wedding preparation so he ducked fully back into the dining room. Candide saying, "Harry will be home soon, so we should straighten things up a bit," slowed him returning to the table. As if he would care. He could not imagine she believed him orderly. He shook his head.

"Who's this?" a voice asked.

A third voice, sounding like Candide with a bad cold, said knowingly, "Candide is inheriting a son, didn't she tell you?"

"Ruthie, really, not exactly," Candide said, speaking to her sister, Harry now knew from the name.

The second voice was shrill as it said, "He's expecting you to take care of his brat?"

Harry ducked his head, face scrunched in amusement. He stayed put, near the doorway, wanting to hear how Candide handled that.

"Hardly. He's nineteen."

"Worse! Still at home at that age? Must be a regular dosser."

Fabric rustled as though being gathered together with care to keep it flat. "You should tell her who it is," Ruthie said with a grin in her voice.

"Your mum said his father couldn't seem to find the time to pay a call."

"Severus works very hard," Candide said with patience.

"I had a year of Potions with him at Hogwarts," the grating voice said. "I quickly decided I'd stick to using cauldrons strictly for cooking. You remember him, don't you, Ruthie? Used to slither around the dungeon during class. We thought he must hang himself up like a vampire bat in some dark corner to sleep at night."

Harry, who very well knew how evil a vampire was, bristled at this.

"Karol, if you don't want to be in the wedding, you don't-"

"NO, NO, I love weddings. It's men I can't stand."

Harry scratched the back of his head, thinking he may have missed his opportunity for an unembarrassing entrance, from Candide's perspective anyhow. If he were Dudley, he could pretend to have been wearing headphones of some kind all this time. Instead, Harry Disapparated to a spot two feet from where he stood, hoping it made only one noise, given the short distance. He sat at the table and pulled the teapot over, and made other noises with his books.

Footsteps shuffled over and Candide said, "Hello, Harry."

Harry lifted his head as though surprised. A second figure and then a third came into view. Ruthie was a heavyset, rougher skinned version of Candide. She wore glowing red lipstick and her eyelashes were unnaturally long. The other woman, in contrast, had a sunken-cheeked face and a sour mouth, and at the moment, it hung open.

"This is my sister, Ruthie," Candide said, indicating the wide-robed figure on her right.

Harry stood to shake hands. Ruthie had a glint in her eye as though thrilled to meet him.

"And this is Karolyn, a childhood friend, and also a third cousin."

Harry nodded at her because she did not have the sense to lift her hand. He did not bother Legilimizing her, because he would rather not know. He retook his seat where his books provided a wall to bunker behind. Ruthie placed her beefy hands on the table and leaned toward him. She moved like someone accustomed to using her size to seem immovable or unstoppable, depending.

"You didn't come to meet mum and dad at The Dinner."

Harry found he instinctively wanted to be careful what he said to her. "I didn't want to be in the way."

This answer struck her as odd and funny, or so her face indicated. "'In the way?' That wouldn't be a problem."

"You, uh . . ." Karolyn began. She turned to Candide. "You, uh, live with Harry Potter?"

Candide laughed and said, "Well, yes."

"Don't, uh . . ." She glanced painfully at Harry. "Don't, uh, bad things tend to happen . . ."

Ruthie broke in, laughing too. "Didn't you see all the new repairs to the house there?"

Candide fell serious. "Sometimes bad things happen. But they're handled well." She shifted her arms uncomfortably, indicating to Harry that recent events had not let her go yet, even if she hid it most of the time.

Ruthie put her hand upon her generous breast and said, "Oh, you have a knight in shining armor. How sweet."

Candide looked straight at Harry and said, "I have two, actually." She glanced around. "Let's leave Harry to his studies. Come on." As they re-entered the hall with last glances back, Candide said, "Taffeta, silk, velvet, lace, hell, felt even; it really doesn't matter."

Later, after her companions disappeared in the Floo, Candide sat down across from Harry, clutching her hands momentarily. "Sorry 'bout that."

"It's all right," he assured her.

"My cousin is a little . . . uptight. But she loves weddings, knows all the latest . . . styles. What's in. What's out." Candide sounded regretful. Harry remained silent. She went on, "So much to do to get ready. You don't know."

Harry flicked his quill around in his fingers. "No, fortunately I don't know."

Candide put her hands in her lap and sat vaguely hunched. "I always wanted to get married. It always looked like so much fun . . . get to be the center of attention for a day . . . everything just the way you want it." She slumped a little more. "Now I just want the day to come and be over with."

Harry's lips twitched impishly as he said, "You want to just wave a magic wand and make it so, you mean?"

She refused to be baited, sounding stressed as she said, "You have a spell that conjures a florist, a hairdresser, a jewelry, a candlemaker, a cupbearer, a dressmaker, a decorator, a makeup artist, a Supreme Mugwort . . . and a string quartet?"

"Nope. I would conjure them all for you if I could, though."

She relented. "I appreciate that."

Harry rubbed his stomach which complained faintly of being empty. "What time did Severus say he'd be back from Hogwarts?"

Candide jumped up. "Oh, I forgot. He told me to owl when we were through." She rushed to the other room for a pen and parchment.

Harry muttered to himself, "Smart man."

- 888 -

Monday first thing at training, Rodgers appeared and told Harry that he was wanted in the office. Harry mused about what he may be in trouble for until he found a contrite Shacklebolt speaking with Mr. Weasley, who appeared chipper, especially in comparison to the man beside him.

"Harry," Mr. Weasley said after the Auror remained quiet, "Kingsley wishes to apologize." He stepped closer to Harry and leaned down as though sharing something confidential. "You realize that the hold a vampire has over his victim is stronger than an Imperio in some ways because it does not require the master to stay in the vicinity of or remain aware of the person they are controlling?"

"Er, we haven't covered it yet, but I understand." Harry remembered tossing his wand down before Occluding his mind. It gave him shivers, even here where he was safe. "I can imagine it, sir. Fueago put a fog around the house and I lost Blackpool to him and almost lost myself."

Mr. Weasley patted him on the back. "It's fortunate for us that you didn't. Severus' lessons held you in good stead."

"That and lots of experience with Voldemort," Harry agreed. At this, Shacklebolt raised his head slightly. "It's all right, sir," he reassured the Auror.

"I really was trying to get at you, Potter." He rubbed his upper arm, ash still marked the back of his hands and his forehead, as though the exorcism had just ended that morning and he had not gathered the sense to wipe it off. "I remember doing that, but I couldn't stop myself." He sounded truly horrified.

Upbeat, Harry said, "Now that I have the right wand, it would be all right."

"It would not be all right," Shacklebolt insisted. "I tried to throw an Imperius Curse at you-"

"You what?" Mr. Weasley blurted.

Still clutching his arm, Shacklebolt gestured clumsily at Harry. "He blocked it somehow. I don't know how." Harry was not accustomed to seeing him so uncertain and just wished he would return to himself and stop worrying so.

"I just squashed it," Harry said. "Since I couldn't block it."

Shacklebolt stared at him, taking that in. He said. "But you're all right now?" he asked, oddly needing reassurance.

Harry still ached in various random places, but he said, "Yeah. 'S Fine."

"Well, Harry, back to your training," Mr. Weasley said. He steered Harry out with a hand on his shoulder. "I'm glad that's taken care of," he confessed. "Kingsley will be a few days returning to his old self. Feels rather guilty, I think."

They had arrived at the training room. "Sorry I delayed Harry," Mr. Weasley told Rodgers. Harry's fellows were already well into their drills. Rodgers gestured for Harry to take over opposite Tridant. Their newest member had a much shorter sequence, which Harry was happy to stick to while he grew accustomed to the nuanced responsiveness of his new wand. Tridant seemed less defeated today. Harry figured he was sick of constant advice, so he kept quiet as they exchanged spells and counters, back and forth.

At lunchtime, Harry headed up to the Minister's office. Belinda was sneaking bites of a sandwich out of the bottom drawer of her desk. She gave him a dull hello without meeting his eyes.

Harry glanced around, frowning to find Percy glaring at him from where the workmen were affixing the hand-carved flowery edges to the new shelves in the corner. The room smelled pervasively of shellac.

"I was going to see if you wanted to go out for lunch," Harry said sweetly to Belinda. "But I see you're already eating."

She jerked strangely as he spoke, making Harry turn to see if Percy had made some kind of move.

"I can't go to lunch," she said dully.

Harry noticed that her robes were not as neatly pressed as expected. Percy and his obnoxious ways may be making her depressed and that made Harry's skin prickle. He leaned closer, feeling that he really should talk to her alone. "Coffee later?" Someone, most likely Percy, stepped up beside him and Harry's skin prickled more, his robes felt dank against his flesh as though in dire need of being washed.

Harry stood straight and spun on Percy. The feeling faded slightly; Harry now was merely nauseated by the sourest Weasley's presence.

"You have no business up here, Potter," Percy said, spitting faintly on Harry's name.

Harry wiped his cheek. "I have business wherever I want to have it." He tried to Legilimize Percy, who was glaring at him as though inviting him to do so, but Harry received no impressions. "What business do you have here?" he asked, hoping to jar some impression loose. His temper was getting the better of him, so Harry asked mockingly, "Messing up another department, are you? Why is that every time you are assigned somewhere, strange things start happening? You know, like the Portkey detection going all haywire around the time the Ministry is getting attacked by devices coming in as illicit Portkeys."

Percy's hard gaze did not waver. "The Portkey detection has always been hit and miss. I didn't have anything to do with that." More mocking, he went on, "They can't seem to ever fix it properly; it just didn't matter so much before. I was assigned there for a review BECAUSE they were incompetent." He turned to check on the workmen behind him. When he turned back he stood on his toes, leaning over Harry. Nasally, he said, "Get lost, Potter, what do you want, anyway?"

Harry, who beat Percy for physical bulk, but not height, stood his ground. "I want to talk to Belinda, what's it to you?"

Percy's face grew ugly. "You're an idiot; it's everything to me. Get lost or I'll call security."

Harry propped his hands on his hips. "Oh, I'd like to see that."

Smugly, Percy said, "Have you forgotten how many times this year we've needed to call security because you were in here?"

Percy found the mark with that one. Harry backed off and with a sweet goodbye to Belinda, departed, feeling ill tempered.

Tonks did not return before Harry's stomach growled for dinner, so Harry remained out of sorts as he headed home. In the dining room Candide sat alone, reading the papers.

Harry took a seat, stomach rumbling. Plates appeared, but just two of them.

"Where's Severus?"

"He's started working on something today."

"He's at Hogwarts?"

"No, upstairs. But he insisted he not be bothered."

Harry ignored this and headed up.

The door to the spare room used for storage was closed but a whiff of something metallic and hot emanated from under it. Harry knocked and waited, not wanting to barge in and disturb anything fragile.

The door opened just six inches. "I am working on something," Snape said dismissively. "And you are interrupting."

"Oh. I was just . . . wondering why you weren't at dinner."

"I'm at a critical juncture, then I can let it steep. I will eat later."

The door closed with a click.

Downstairs, Candide asked, "Does he throw himself this completely into his work often?"

"Occasionally." Harry tried not to display his befuddlement and Candide returned to reading that oddly peach-colored Muggle newspaper.

Harry sighed and tried to answer his post. He found himself not in the mood for correspondence and tossed it aside, half-unopened. His books did not hold his attention well either. When the door-knocker sounded, Harry's heart leapt at the distraction.

Outside, Elizabeth stood in the gathering gloom of the garden. "Hope you don't mind if I call. I owled from my instructor's house, but didn't get a reply before my lesson ended."

"Oh, sorry. I didn't open my post yet. I don't mind at all, come in."

"We didn't get a chance to talk at your party. There were so many people and I couldn't stay long." She removed her cloak and fastidiously straightened it before handing it to Harry to hang up.

"How are your studies?" Harry asked.

She laughed. "I have a long break, so I've been learning new pieces on the piano mostly." In the hall she said, "The repairs are marvelous, by the way. I didn't get a chance to tell you that."

She seemed a tad nervous as he sat her down across from Candide and poured her some tea. Elizabeth sniffed the tea cup dubiously, sleeves pulled down, halfway covering her hands.

Harry supplied, "Oh, that smell is not the tea. Severus is brewing something."

"Oh, my mum used to do that. Now my dad says it's ridiculous to stink a nice house up when the chemists is just around the corner." This statement led to a fade out of her expression.

Harry was just thinking that this was the second time today he needed to be alone to talk to someone. Candide folded her newspapers and set them aside. Harry thought she was going to leave, but she topped up her teacup.

"Your dad isn't magical?" Candide asked in a highly conversational tone.

"No," Elizabeth shook her head. She wiggled her hands so they stayed inside her sleeves which were stretched taught where they emerged from her pullover.

Harry remembered her father quite clearly as he nearly threw him out of the house after a small tiff sparked solely by Harry's presence. Harry had been interested in Elizabeth before then and after had put her off in deference to not causing trouble.

Candide went on, "Did your dad know your mum was a witch before they married?"

"Yes, of course," Elizabeth laughed lightly, but it faded quickly. "You know, I should probably go. I was on my way home from my lesson. It ended early, and-"

"You don't need to go just yet," Candide said. "Have some more tea."

Elizabeth accepted the cup and drank from it as though the task require a great deal of concentration. "I'm glad I came to your party the other night," she stated out of the blue, almost like a pledge.

Harry's brow furrowed. "I should have another smaller one so I can actually talk to people."

Candide teased, "You would have had more time had you not stood in the corner all night with Ms. Tonks."

Harry blushed. Elizabeth ducked her head. "I really should go." She sounded breathless now and would not be convinced to stay longer. Harry helped her on with her cloak and said goodbye. She glanced back and waved before fading into the wet night.

"Huh," Harry uttered as he sat back down across from Candide.

"You have that skill Severus does to see into people's heads. Didn't you use it?"

Harry shook his head. "Think I should have? I don't like to unless I'm in danger."

Candide unfolded the next unread newspaper and said, "People have odd ways of asking for help."

"Are you referring to Elizabeth?" Harry asked sharply

"Yes." Candide turned the large page and flattened the section with a snap before folding it backwards to read the bottom portion. "Just a sense I had . . ."

"You thought she was asking for help?" Harry asked, mystified.

She tilted her head. "Maybe she's not getting on with her father, or maybe she just had a bad piano lesson. I don't know her well enough to know."

"She was a little off."

"Then it probably isn't the lesson."

Harry pushed his teaspoon around. "Think I should go over to her house?"

"Have you met her family?"

"Yeah, her father hates me."

"That probably would not make things better in that case. Really, truly hates you?" she prompted doubtfully.

"Well, said I wasn't fit for his daughter. Threw me out."

"Really?" Candide tried to swallow a grin. "A whole wizarding world full of fathers who would dream of having you dating their daughter and you find the single one who wouldn't."

"You know; they think that until I actually show up for the date," Harry said, thinking of Tara's parents. "Then they start to have second and third thoughts. And verify that we aren't planning on marriage."

"No wonder you're dating an Auror. Have you met Tonks' parents?"

Harry puzzled that. "No, I haven't. I assume that means we're not planning on marriage."

"Not soon, in any event," Candide commented. "Tonks and you get along well?"

Harry considered that question. "I can be myself around her. I don't have to worry about anything. She can take care of herself." Harry's insides twinged happily thinking of her.

Candide said, "Unlike the rest of us, who are all damsels in distress waiting to happen?"

"I didn't say that," Harry insisted. "It just lets me relax. She tells me what she thinks. Everyone else I've dated is always holding something back." He then added, "And she's cute."

"Well, that's all that matters," Candide stated, still teasing. "And she can look like most anyone, right?"

Harry shrugged. "I like her as herself."

Candide, sly grin in place, said, "Do you even know what that is?"

"Yes, of course," Harry insisted. "I think."

"You've never asked her to look a certain way? Or implied that you prefer one hair color over another?"

Candide seemed to be leading somewhere, but Harry could not see where. "No."

"That may be why she likes you too. I expect she gets a lot of that."

"She's a metamorphmagus, why would she care? It's so easy for her to change."

Candide paused before she said, "But that doesn't mean she wants to."

Harry frowned, not considering that likely. "She used to joke around with us all the time. Making her nose big, making herself old."

"I think that supports my point," Candide said.


"She was removing it as an issue by making fun of it." She waved her hand dismissively as desserts arrived in a sparkle. "But it's no matter. More a matter seems to be that you aren't supposed to be dating her."

Harry rubbed his head, mussing his hair more. "No. We're breaking Ministry rules."

"And getting away with it because you're Harry Potter."

Harry stared off into the dim main hall. "Something I swore I wouldn't ever let them do."

"Your own moral code is always the first to go," Candide quipped. Harry stared at her, prompting her to add, "I didn't mean that so seriously. Besides, if anyone deserves to break the rules, it's you."

"That doesn't help." He flipped through one of his books, not reading it. "What do you think I should do about Elizabeth?"

"Take her out somewhere and get her to talk. Use that creepy skill you learned from Severus on her."

"That's cold."

She buried her nose in the paper again. "Depends on what's going on."

Snape finally came downstairs, trailing an aura of metallic acridity.

"What are you working on?" Harry asked as a full plate materialized before his guardian.

"Something," Snape replied rudely.

Harry and Candide shrugged at each other.

- 888 -

Harry did not have a good idea what to do about Elizabeth until Thursday. When he came home from training he found his friend Hermione at the table across from Snape, who sat far back in his chair, cross-armed, hair half concealing his face.

"Hi, Harry," his friend greeted him brightly. She turned the page of a large grid-lined book in front of her. "So, names along here, in order. Marks here . . ." Harry leaned over her shoulder to peer at the blank grade book.

Snape said, "And you need a Fixitive charm. And an Fouralarm if you truly wish it to be permanent."

"I know those," Hermione stated. "And the red boxes and the purple boxes get repeated in the Grand Grades book in Professor McGonagall's office?" She ran her fingers over the intervening black column lines. "How do I choose which are important enough? There will be a lot of assignments."

Snape said, "That is up to you. The purple, obviously are the cumulative examinations you are expected to hold periodically. Some, like Vector, place a weighted mean of the preceding grades in the red columns. Some, like myself, tweak the grades based on the student's house."

Hermione gaped at him. "Do you really?"

Snape gave her a challenging look in return.

From her position bent over the grade book, Hermione said, "Harry, yell at him for me."

Harry laughed instead. "I've heard him say that he works hard to reduce his advanced class to just Slytherins and Ravenclaws. That must be how he does it."

Hermione shook her head disbelievingly. Harry took the seat beside her and opened his post. The one he had sent to Elizabeth was in the pile as though Hedwig had brought it back undelivered.

Hermione said, "I'll be out of the way shortly. McGonagall sent me a box-load of stuff and suggested I get Professor Snape to answer any questions."

Airily, Snape said, "And here I thought she and I were getting along better."

Hermione leaned closer to Harry, "I'm not taking him seriously. Is that the best course?"

"Yes. Especially since it'll make him nuts." Harry gave his guardian a smile to buffer that. To Hermione, Harry said, "Can you do me a favor before you go?"

"Sure, Harry."

"When you're done. Don't rush."

"I don't have much time to get ready for first term." She sounded panicky. "I put in my notice at work so I can have the next few weeks, full time." She pulled out a battered booklet entitled Rulers & Rules and flipped to the first note she had taped inside. "Now, about this policy on reasonable detention . . . I happen to remember you violated it on at least ten occasions that I know of."

They both waited for Snape's reaction, which was not forthcoming. "And your point is?" he finally prompted easily.

Hermione went on, "So, does that mean I can violate it? Or is it only Heads of House or only YOU?"

Later, Harry led his friend out the door. The evening was warm and comfortable and he wondered why he did not find more time for walks. He stopped suddenly, thinking that Kali would like to come out as well. He could feel her claustrophobia and her desire for fresh air and open space. "Just a second," Harry said, going to fetch her.

They resumed their walk down to the train station, Kali flapping along beside and around them while Harry explained. "You remember Elizabeth, right? Something is . . . I don't know how to say it . . . well, suffice to say, I'd like to talk to her, but her father wouldn't let me if he sees me, I expect. I'm wondering if you can lure her out to a coffee shop or to a pub so I can chat with her."

Hermione puzzled this. "Sure, Harry."

Kali flitted by. Harry urged her to fly to the approaching white house, thinking to make her look in the windows.

"Where's she going?" Hermione asked in concern. Kali had been sticking close until then.

"I'm sending her ahead to scout. I'm trying to use her as a mobile extendible eye." Harry stopped and closed his eyes but he could only get disconnected, fleeting impressions from his pet. Last time she had been in pain when he saw through her eyes. Without that strong sensation, she was difficult to locate in his mind. He shook his head, giving up.

"Not working?"

"It has before, but it's hard. I should practice that; it'd be useful." He urged Kali back to him and stopped on the pavement behind the large shrubs bordering the Peterson house. "I'll wait here."

"If I'm talking loudly when I return, the father's with me."

"Got it. Thanks."

Harry listened to her shoes clunk up the drive. The porch projected her voice faintly to the street as she spoke with someone at the door. Harry held Kali facing that way and tried to hear through her more sensitive ears. Sometimes he could manage, but it faded in and out.

" . . . yes, Hermione. I'm a friend from Oxford . . . I'm studying law there . . . yes. Just happen to have taken the train into town. I'm staying with a friend and remembered that Elizabeth lives here. "

Things went on in this vein, like an interrogation.

"We're in Magdalen together."

Harry grinned in affection for his old friend. She could bluff anything because she knew enough about any topic to do so and remembered everything anyone ever told her.

"Well, when she comes in tonight, please tell her I stopped by."

Hermione came back down the walk.

"He's a tough customer," she muttered.

"You got Mr. Peterson?"

"I assume."

They reached Harry's house a short, silent walk later.

"Something about Mr. Peterson I don't like. Oh, hello, Candide," Hermione said, when they were greeted at the door.

Harry explained, "We were just trying to wade through the Mr. Peterson moat to see Elizabeth."

"Did you?"

"He said she wasn't home."

"Was he lying?" Candide asked, something Harry had not considered.

Hermione thought that over. "I'm not sure. Sometimes I can tell, but not with that guy. He's the same no matter what he is talking about."

- 888 -

Saturday afternoon, Harry had field shadowing again. He stashed his new wand in his newly extended pocket, glad to have it. In the office he found Rogan waiting for him.

"Well, Potter, ready to go?"


Rogan's step was lighter than usual as they strolled the East End on patrol. Harry wondered at his change in mood.

"Nice day, isn't it?" Harry asked, wondering if the weather explained it.

"What? Oh, yes."

Harry decided that he needed to understand things better, so he dived in with, "This is the first time in a long while that they've let you do routine patrol, isn't it?"

Rogan frowned, which his rounded face did not allow to be to grim. "Yup. They'll let me out with a full Auror or you."

"Or me?" Harry asked. "They have a lot of faith in me, don't they? In some ways."

"Things were better this week," Rogan said. "Kingsley's lost his superior attitude." With mock dreaminess, he added, "Wonder why?" Minutes later he said, "At least I didn't attack a trainee while compromised."

Harry now understood why Rogan felt better. "He did seem less smug this week."

"I'm lucky we're shorthanded. I'd still be on full probation, writing endless memos, otherwise."

They returned in the wee hours after a long and uneventful shift. The lamps in the Auror's offices were at half wick, bathing everything in misleading warm light. Harry sat down on the bench to remove each of his shoes and rubbed his feet.

Rogan gave him a grin as Harry sat there with his socks exposed. "Need new shoes?"

"They are new; that's the problem." Fortunately there was a salve at home for just this situation, so Harry reluctantly slipped his lace-ups back on and skipped tying them when his feet protested the very thought.

Buried in distracted thoughts of future relief, Harry grabbed up his cloak and turned to go. Instinct made him drop the cloak, mid-swing to put it on, when a wave of aversion struck. If his wand had been shorter and had not been sticking inches out of his pocket, he would not have drawn it in time.

Harry managed half a rubber block before something dark exploded, filling his vision with four-foot hairy razor points. Rogan dived off the side of the bench, having drawn his wand immediately after Harry did. He threw a blasting curse that tossed the dissipating rubber block and the giant spiked object into the corner where it began to deflate with a musical squeaking sound. Fresh gouges in the wall haloed it.

Harry stared at his cloak, draped over something the size of a beach ball with a hundred spikes stuck through it. The spines tipped slowly flat to the floor as the ball lost volume.

"What is that?" Harry asked after taking a breath.

Rogan stood up and stepped over beside him to watch the thing in the corner, wand aimed at it. "I've never seen anything like it." He jerked to look Harry up and down. "Did you get cut?"

"I don't think so," Harry dully said.

"I don't want to hear "think" Potter. It could be poison tipped."

Harry gestured at it. "Something that big and nasty would not need to be poisoned as well, would it?"

"Go fetch Tonks or whoever is on duty." Rogan kept his gaze and his wand on the thing as Harry obeyed.

Half a minute later, Tonks was saying, "Something jumped out of your cloak? A regulated creature?"

Harry led the way into the changing room and gestured.

"Merlin the White, what the heck is that? She leaned her long neck out to better examine it without stepping closer. "Better get Mysteries up here." She dashed off, saying behind her. "Cover the office, Rogan. Harry can guard that thing."

Rogan dashed out the door in the other direction from the one Tonks had taken. Harry held his wand out but doubted he would need it again; the thing sat sunken, unmoving. Harry's right shin stung and when he shook it, his trouser leg stuck to his skin. Harry backed up to the wall, so he could put enough distance between himself and the spiked thing to lift his robe and check his leg. His black trousers made it hard to see how bloody it really was, but there was a rent in the fabric. Harry awkwardly covered the wound with his left hand, then remembered he could Staunch it. He stood straight and imagined his leg packed to the knee with snow. The pain faded to a dull throb. He waited.

The door opened and Harry gestured with his blood-smeared hand that Mr. Weasley should keep to the left. The department head's red brow furrowed as he came over to Harry, while keeping his gaze fixed in the corner.

"Tristan sent me an owl by Floo saying something had attacked the changing room. What is that?"

"Don't know."

"Where'd it come from?"

"It was in my cloak."

This made Mr. Weasley turn his head to Harry. "You hurt?" He grabbed up Harry's wrist to better see his bloodied hand.

"I got cut on the shin. I dropped the cloak but didn't quite get out of the way of it." Harry played that half a second over in his mind. "Rogan blasted it into the corner before my block failed."

"Is it poisonous?" Mr. Weasley sharply asked.

"I don't know," Harry admitted.

Led by Tonks, a crew came in from Mysteries, wearing padded robes and masks, so Harry could not recognize them. They hovered the thing into a massive solid titanium trunk and hovered that off.

Harry said to Mr. Weasley and Tonks, "All I know is I'm glad I have my new wand." Without it, the spikes would have been through him instead of his cloak. "Drat," Harry breathed. "That was my new cloak."

Mr. Weasley patted Harry on the arm and went to the wall where several of the spikes had broken off in the panelling. He used a hankie to pry the longest one free. "Tonks, take this to the potions room and check it for poison." He turned to Harry. "Come along, Harry. We have to keep a watch on you until we know you're clear."

Harry sat on a stool in the corner of what was actually a glorified cupboard. It was as though someone had put a shrinking charm on Snape's old office, leaving only six feet of floor space to stand in. The shelves were deeper than the open floor was wide.

Harry moved to heal the wound on his leg, but Tonks said, "We need a photo of it." She called out into the corridor for Rogan.

Harry rolled his eyes, but sat quietly through what he knew was a required evidence procedure. Rogan worked quickly, then departed, noisily winding the evidence camera film up.

Propping his heel on a shelf and stretching his back and neck, Harry could just get a good look at the wound. It was dark with rapidly clotting blood but it otherwise appeared normal. He pulled out his wand.

Tonks, both hands holding bottles of irritating liquids, scrubbed at her nose on her sleeve. "Why don't you let me do that. You're liable to leave a scar if you don't aim the spell properly."

"Because you're busy. Another scar isn't going to matter," Harry said, bristling at being babied.

"I don't want your lovely leg scarred," she insisted, voice taking on a sexy tone.

Mr. Weasley choose that moment to step into the doorway. "Am I interrupting?"

"No, of course not. No sign of poison so far," Tonks said, putting drops of something milky onto a glass dish and touching it with the end of the spike. "You're a wiz at healing spells, Arthur. Take care of Harry will you?"

Mr. Weasley crouched beside Harry and peeled his soaked trouser leg up farther. He frowned. "Good thing it didn't get more of you, Harry. Dangerous thing."

"Yeah," Harry had to agree. He held tight to his next thought by biting his lip. That thing seemed like something the twins might have invented. Harry decided he could check into that himself.

Mr. Weasley cast several spells at his leg, then he spit into his hankie and rubbed Harry's leg briskly to remove the dried blood. "Looks good. It would have been deeper, but it hit bone."

"Spoken like a man with six sons," Tonks teased.

Even Harry smiled at that.

Some time later, with Mr. Weasley assisting because Tonks spilled the second to last bottle of Prismatic Revelation, Tonks declared, "I don't see any sign of poison."

Harry figured it must be around 3:00 in the morning because his eyelids felt made of lead. "Can I go?"

"Why don't you escort him, Tonks?"

"I don't need an escort," Harry sharply insisted, before thinking better that it would be Tonks and that would actually be quite to his advantage. "Sorry," he said to her. "I'm all right though. It was just a scratch."

Tonks put a stopper in the last open bottle and said, sounding fully professional, "It was just someone trying to kill you, Harry."

Harry frowned and huffed since it was difficult to argue otherwise.

At Harry's house in Shrewsthorpe, Harry pleaded with Tonks not to wake Snape.

"Really, it's all right," Harry whispered. "I woke him up last weekend too after shift."


"I got hit kind of hard by Shacklebolt and couldn't sleep," Harry admitted, kicking himself for that slip-up. He went on, "I don't need anything. It's a scratch and it's healed."

"It's a higher alert level . . . for your protection," Tonks argued, also whispering.

"This house is already warded to the maximum it could be," Harry countered.

The sound of a throat clearing floated in through the door to the dining room. Snape stepped in, holding Kali. "She was making a bit of a racket an hour ago."

"Sorry," Harry said. "Didn't mean to wake you."

As he passed them, Snape inspected each of them before letting Kali crawl onto Harry's shoulder. Harry petted her head which she rested it on his collar, tired. "I need to get to sleep," Harry said.

"Bad shift?" Snape asked.

"No exactly," Tonks replied for him. "Someone slipped something deadly into Harry's cupboard."

"I lost another cloak," Harry said. "This must be a record."

"The cloak is no matter," Snape chided him, crossing his arms and confronting Tonks. "What was this thing?"

"We don't know. We sent it down to the Department of Mysteries."

"Where you will be lucky to hear anything of it again," Snape finished for her.

Harry said, "It was cursed. I felt it in time before putting the cloak on."

"So it must have been slipped into the cupboard. You're certain it wasn't in the cloak when you bought it?" Tonks asked.

"I didn't feel it before."

"It could have been masked, though," Tonks suggested.

"That does not fool Harry," Snape provided.

"Okay . . ." Tonks mused, hair shifting to brown. "Our traitor is still skulking around, apparently."

Harry held his tongue on his suspicions for the moment. If it was Percy, Harry felt a bit like handling it himself.

Tonks departed after breaking her work mode long enough to give Harry a hug.

"I'm tired," Harry said, to cut off whatever Snape opened his mouth to say.

"I was going to suggest that you rest. But more importantly, I wished to know if that is your blood on your hand . . ."

"Yeah, I need to clean up." He headed for the toilet, forcing Kali to hang on tightly as he broke into stride, calling over his shoulder, "It's all healed, don't worry about it."

The door to the toilet closed in the distance and Snape said to the empty hall, "No, of course I shan't worry."

Next Week: Chapter Six

Tonks strode into the changing room as Harry's fellows departed. As though speaking for his hollow stomach, she said, "I have half an hour before my shift if you want to find an early bite."

"Sounds great," Harry said, weighing the sack in his hand before slipping it into his pocket. "I need to go Diagon Alley anyway. I told Elizabeth I'd buy her a new wand."

By unstated agreement, they Apparated into the Leaky Cauldron. On the way through the wall in back, Tonks asked, "Why doesn't Elizabeth get her own wand?"

Author's Notes
Sorry didn't get this up at a decent hour. 10 hour drive took up most of my productive day.

Chapter 6: Rabbit Hole
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Chapter 6 — Rabbit Hole

Sunday, Harry woke and while still in bed, penned a quick letter, careful not to get any droplets of ink on the bedding as he brought the quill from the inkwell to the parchment and back again. Still in his pyjamas, he sat on the trunk under his bedroom window and released Hedwig after giving her very specific instructions to deliver his missive directly to Elizabeth's room. The letter invited her out to the pub that afternoon and suggested that she not tell her father whom she was to meet.

When Hedwig returned while Harry buttoned his shirt, bearing the same unopened letter, he frowned at his owl. "What happened, you couldn't find her?" he asked. It wasn't terribly early, so she should be awake.

Harry tugged on his right sock while Hedwig flapped up to sit on his wardrobe. He padded over, pulled Kali from her cage and stared at her tiny fox-like face haloed by her purple body fur. She sniffed the air, then chewed on his finger. The prickly pain gave him a fleeting impression of a salty, poultry taste that must be from her. He let her out the window and urged her to fly to the Peterson house. She flew to the roof of the train station instead, where the pigeons made slow, chubby prey.

Harry willed her back through his window, which was not easy, mid-stalk like she was with her wings arched high and back. He held her up before his face again. "You aren't cooperating," he criticized her. He pulled on his slippers and took the rejected letter downstairs where he found Candide in the drawing room, glossy magazines spread out before her, pages filled with all manner of brides, posed against a ubiquitous brown background as though standing inside a giant, well-lit paper sack. Clearly the back of the dress was considered more critical than the front, given the prevalence of that angle.

"Would you do me a favor?" Harry asked her. "I mean, if you're not busy."

"Sure, if you do me one." She turned a ten pound, three-inch thick magazine across the desk in his direction. "Do you like this dress?"

Harry stared at the picture. The dress was form-fitting, except for the oversized sleeves, and it had scroll-like beadwork sewn into the waist and down the back in a point. The overall shape was reminiscent of an upside-down tulip, down to the texture. But, to a first approximation, it was a dress.

"It's nice," Harry said, trying to sound like he meant it.

"You don't think it's too princess gown?"

"Too what?"

"You know, like Cinderella, or Snow White. Don't you know Snow White?"

"Wasn't she poisoned by a witch?" Harry asked, wondering how they had wandered into this topic out of dresses.

"She married Prince Charming; that's the key point," Candide supplied. "Oh, that's right, I took you to your first film when you were young. 'Course you haven't seen Snow White." She pulled the magazine back. "How could I forget?"

Harry stood, holding Kali, who sniffed with interest at the perfumes that permeated the magazine pile. He really had lost track of the conversation. "Oh," he said, remembering suddenly that he had indeed briefly rendered himself half his normal age. "What'd we see?"


Harry felt a bit left out by this revelation. "Did I like it?"

"Um." She tapped her finger on a page bearing an adorable furry mutt carrying a flower basket and sporting a pink ribbon on the top of its head. "You seemed disturbed by it, honestly."

Harry mulled that, while Candide flipped through twenty pages. She stopped at a dress worn by a woman clearly well along in her pregnancy. It lacked the sparkly effects most the others had and the fabric hue was reminiscent of old parchment rather than a fancy tablecloth like the others. "Good thing we're getting married soon enough not to need THAT dress," she commented. She flipped back to the dress marked with a folded over strip of spellotape.

Harry said, "I was wondering if you could go talk to Elizabeth."

"Not that I'd mind doing so, but she walks by here everyday, doesn't she?"

"That's right," Harry said. "She has lessons. I forgot. Maybe that's why Hedwig didn't find her." Harry leaned over Candide's shoulder to examine the page again, saying, "Maybe the puffy sleeves make it look like Snow White."

Greatly alarmed, Candide asked, "You don't like the puffy sleeves?"

With immense care, as though he had disturbed a nest of asps or perhaps a sleeping horntail, Harry levelly and calmly said, "I didn't say that. I just suggested . . . that's perhaps where the . . . look of it gets its . . . well, Snow White . . . thing." Harry decided that he should not express an opinion if he could help it. "I like them all, really."

He did not expect this to pass muster, but Candide turned a pained eye back to the magazine and flipped idly through the pages she had just gone through a moment before. "They're all very nice. Well, there are few I don't like at all, but, yeah, they are mostly quite nice."

Harry closed his eyes in a moment's relief before excusing himself, saying he needed to do his readings right then so they were finished before Lupin and Harry's cousin arrived for dinner, even though it was only morning. Snape was not in the library or the dining room, and Harry caught a caustic scent in the air, which implied he was bunkered inside the spare room, brewing. Harry hoped he did not come out until the gown shopping was put away for the day.

Harry took his books outside into the front garden to read, the better to see his friend walk by. The burst of summer growth had pushed the ivy over the bench, so Harry had to urge it behind and sweep the dead leaves away with his hand before settling in. The sun was just reaching the ragged top edge of the wall beside him, so soon he would be out of the shade and the morning chill clinging to the surrounding stone would pass. Harry blew on his fingers and found the place where he had left off on the manual of evidence collection.

Two chapters in, reading grew tedious and Harry's mind drifted to the back garden of the house where Sirius' bike had sat idle for months. Once he had this vision in his head, he could not leave it be, even after he told himself he would read one more section before even going to take a look at the motorbike.

Giving in, Harry closed the books, and tossed them onto a table in the library on his way through to the back garden. Repeated trimming spells were required to remove the tangled dead and green ivy, but after that, the cover pulled away easily. The bike underneath gleamed as brightly as it did when Hagrid had delivered it; more so, because of the sunlight.

Harry, more easily than the last time he had maneuvered it, rolled it away from the wall into the small open space. The bike felt closer to the right size as he mounted it, his arms less splayed ungainly wide while holding the handlebars. Harry kicked the bike to life and it roared appreciatively.

Harry heard a shout and looked around and up to find Snape at the window of the spare room. Harry spun the Roar knob down till it fell silent.

"A bit of warning next time before you start up that infernal thing," Snape demanded.

Harry waved. "Forgot how loud it was," he admitted.

"That is not possible to forget," Snape said. "And if you are going far, do be careful."

"How's the brewing going?" Harry asked to end the conversation.

And indeed, Snape hmfed and pulled his head back inside. Grinning, Harry flew the bike as low as possible over the back wall and rode it along the rutted field path bordering the gardens and out to the road. In the daylight, he decided to just keep it on the ground. He adjusted the Roar knob up again to make a reasonable noise and cruised off to the right to search the streets in that direction for Elizabeth's piano teacher.

Harry cruised slowly along rows of well-kept old houses. He was about to turn back onto the main road, when he heard a shout. With effort, he turned the bike around on the narrow tarmac and stopped before a grey house dominated by a large bay window. Elizabeth stood on the porch chatting with an attractive brown-haired woman in smart clothes. She waved, said goodbye to her teacher and came jogging, despite her heels, over to greet Harry.

"I wasn't sure where your teacher's house was," Harry admitted.

Elizabeth was looking over the bike, but she jerked her head to look at him as she said, "You were looking for me?"

"Yeah, let's get an ice cream. Hop on."

She laughed. "You have a helmet for me? You aren't even wearing one."

"Oh," Harry said. "There's a pair in the pannier; hang on." Harry put on the brake, flipped down the stand and swung off, finding his legs already complaining about being stretched by the wide seat. From the closer pannier, he produced a pair of sparkly white helmets. Harry suspected they were magical, given their leather interiors and handmade look. He gave the smaller one to her.

"Do you even have a license?" she asked as she used her colored fingernails and teeth to tighten the stiff strap. "Or a number plate?"

"No," Harry said. "I mostly fly on it anyhow, and the Muggles don't have a license for that."

She got on behind Harry and scooted close, still adjusting her chin strap. "Well, they do, but not for motorbikes, that's for certain."

When she put her arms around him, Harry released the brake and gently accelerated to the main road and waited for an unusual string of traffic to clear.

"Do you know where you're going?" she asked as he turned left.

"No," Harry shouted because he did not want to turn his head far. "I only know my way around from in the air."

They rode for a while on the main road as it wound through field and forest. Sunlight played on the rutted roadway, filtering through the trees. Two villages over, they stopped before a small shop with a cracked giant plastic ice cream cone out front.

As usual, the great bike attracted everyone's attention. Harry, not wanting to embarrassingly deflect questions he could not answer, urged Elizabeth quickly to a bright pink table and went to the window to order.

Seated at the table, Harry took two bites of his treat and said, "So, how are you?"

Her mood shifted instantly, face darkening.

Using clues from Candide, Harry said, "Everything all right at home?"

She swallowed the large bite she had in her mouth and licked her lips before replying. "My dad has always been . . . has always sort of disliked magic. Well, maybe he didn't always dislike it, but when I was young he started dissuading my mum from using it. Except at Christmas and sometimes at the lake camp when the place really needed a good cleaning, or we wanted a fire, but otherwise, I always had the impression he didn't like it." She faded out, expression pinned on the cars driving by. "He's become a lot stricter about it. He gets angry immediately when the topic comes up, and ever since what happened at your place, my mum doesn't argue with him any longer. Takes his side."

She frowned and spooned up the liquid pooling around the mound in her bowl. "I've been difficult too; doing more magic, even when I'm not good at it, just to irk him more."

"I understand," Harry said. "The aunt and uncle I lived with for seventeen years despised magic. I think because they feared it."

"I don't think my dad fears it. I just think he hates losing . . ." She faded out.

"Losing what?"

Harry at first thought she would not answer. "Losing control. He likes to be in charge. Really likes to be in charge. Since I've been away at school, I can't take it anymore. When I was his little girl, I didn't mind so much, for some reason."

Harry thought he understood that too. Snape could be terribly strict as well, but Harry took it to mean that he cared, and Harry surprisingly found he preferred to please him as not, although he had been slipping on that. He pondered that during the subsequent silence. Snape's admission that he had not even attempted to enforce any rules about his dating or the Dark Plane meant that something fundamental had changed between them.

Elizabeth had faded out, and did not notice that Harry had as well. Harry returned to the present and said, "You have to put up with your dad for a while longer."

Her face fell sadder. "Yep. We had a real row the other night. I just couldn't take his silly rules anymore." Her voice dropped, "He took my wand when I threatened to use it. I think he burned it."

Falling into Auror interview mode, Harry asked factually, "What happened to instigate that?"

The tone worked; she said, "He threatened to slap me for something I said. I probably deserved it. But I pulled my wand on him." She laughed dully. "Like I could do anything to him. Like I know any dangerous spells."

"No one deserves to be slapped for mere words," Harry stated, disliking immensely that she had said that. "Do you have friends you can stay with?"

"I could go visit some friends from school."

"Why don't you do that? Getting some space would help a lot."

"Space is what made me realize what a domineering control freak he is. It would give me an opportunity to get a new wand. But my mum . . . well, she'd be unhappy if I did."

They chatted for a while longer, until Harry's uncompleted studies began to nag at him. He said, "I have to get home. We have friends coming for dinner and I have readings to finish." They stood and Harry cleaned up their spots. "I can get you another wand. What kind did you have before?"

"Would you do that? I had birch and unicorn before."

"I'll take you to Ollivanders if you want. Or I can pick you up a wand since that combination sounds easy. Whichever you prefer."

She glanced at her watch. "I need to get home too. Maybe you can fetch one for me." She reached into her clutch and handed him several twenty-pound notes while sheepishly explaining: "Wands are expensive. I don't have any Galleons . . ."

Harry pocketed the money, pulled out the helmets and slipped his on. "I'll fetch you one tomorrow when Ollivanders is open."

She laughed. "Thanks, Harry."

He swung his leg over the bike. "No problem. Hop on."

- 888 -

When visitors' voices sounded from the dining room, Harry put down his books and eagerly went to greet them. The sconces had been extinguished and tall candles lit the table. Candide urged Lupin and Pamela to choose seats. Lupin appeared far healthier than last time he had visited; in fact he seemed to be bordering on chubby, which softened the canine edge to his visage.

They greeted Harry, who, despite not finishing his readings, decided to join them that instant.

"Severus still locked away?" Candide asked Harry.

"I think so."

"What's this?" Lupin asked.

"Severus is working on something," Harry explained. "He won't say what it is, but he spends hours brewing upstairs."

Lupin shook his head. "He's always had an odd, anti-social side." When Pamela swatted him lightly on the arm, he added, "I take that back. As long as he brews Wolfsbane for me, he can be as odd as he likes."

Butterbeers appeared and they fell into warm conversation.

Pamela immediately brought up the one topic Harry hoped they would avoid, at least until later. "How is the wedding coming?"

Candide groaned. "It's coming along. I was hoping for help from my cousin, but her tastes and mine are completely different. And she seems to think it's insulting to allow there to be a budget for such a thing. But I did pick out a dress."

"Did you?" Pamela asked with relish.

"Do you want to see the advert for it?"

The two of them leapt up and departed. Harry sipped his butterbeer and enjoyed the silence.

"How are things with you, Harry?" Lupin asked. He sounded solicitous, which made Harry think he was doing fairly well himself.

"Pretty good," Harry said. "Skeeter has been mostly ignoring me. Training is going well."

He smiled and asked, "No dark wizards haunting you?"

Harry frowned, thinking of the strange thing in his cloak. "Something odd happened the other day, but it might have just been a prank that went poorly. I'm going to investigate tomorrow with the twins. See if they know anything."

Despite Harry's assurances, Lupin's heavy brow lowered and remained there. "Don't make any assumptions Harry. Don't hesitate to let us know if you need the Order revitalized again."

Harry laughed lightly. "I don't need the Order," he said dismissively, feeling Lupin still thought him a child.

"I don't like to see that overconfidence, Harry."

"You sound like Mad-Eye," Harry criticized between sips of butterbeer. "He always says that right before he bowls me over with a spell I don't know."

"You talk like he's still alive," Lupin said quietly.

Harry headed for safety. "No one ever found his body," he pointed out. "Maybe I'll go prod Severus. Do you mind if I leave you alone?"

A fresh butterbeer sparkled in to replace Lupin's empty one. "Not at all. The service here is wonderful."

Harry dashed upstairs and in passing glanced into Snape's bedroom where piles of thick, square magazines had been hastily spread out.

"Your mum said what?" Pamela was saying. Candide glanced up at Harry in apparent consternation at being overheard and he accidentally saw in her eyes a vision of her mum arguing that she should call off the wedding.

"I was just seeing if I can drag Severus from his brewing," Harry said.

"Good idea," Candide said, sounding as pat as he did.

Harry walked around and slipped inside the storage room without knocking. The setup inside was unlike any he had ever seen. Intricate glass tubes connected glass bottles and cauldrons in a three-dimensional rack that filled the center of the room. Portable fires hovered under the suspended bottles propelling swirling liquids through the tubes. Crystal bowls full of colorful grains were lined up on the old door, again propped up as a worktable.

"What are you making?" Harry asked.

Snape sat bent over a stone board, using an obsidian knife to split a pile of course grains. He did not reply.

Harry said, "I take it you're going to be a little while longer?"

Snape nodded.

Harry took a deep breath. "I don't mean to be difficult, but it is probably not the best time to dive into an obsessive brewing session, especially so secretively."

Snape continued to split miniscule grains and push them aside into an indentation in the granite board. His hair hid his face except for his intent brow. Moldy books, heavily bookmarked, sat open nearby in a tall stack, their pages so yellowed they had gone all the way to rust colored.

Harry said, "I didn't realize Candide's mother was trying to stop the wedding."

This brought the glassy black blade to a halt. Snape stretched his neck back and said, "Did Candide tell you that?"

"Not directly." At Snape's sharp look, Harry added, "I didn't mean to pry. It was an accident. Emotion makes it much easier to read people, doesn't it?"

"Very much so. Emotion is a weakness for nearly everyone," Snape said, returning to his chopping. "I will be ten minutes more."

"Invite her parents over," Harry said. "I can work on them a bit."

Harry expected him to decline, but from out the veil of hair came: "Suggest it to Candide."

Harry joined the women as they returned downstairs. Candide was saying, "Headmistress has insisted that Severus delay starting at Hogwarts for a week. Most kind of her."

Pamela resumed her seat and took up Lupin's hand. "Remus doesn't mind at all covering for a while."

Lupin said, "Minerva has gone far out of her way to defend my being at Hogwarts. It's the least I can do."

Harry waited until the conversation about the wedding wore down before he suggested to Candide, "Why don't you have your parents over for dinner here."

"If they'll come," Lupin joked a little tipsily, making Harry wonder if butterbeer had the same effect on a werewolf that it did on an elf.

Candide said, "I expect they'll come. I'll see if Severus minds."

Snape stepped in just then and brusquely asked, "Minds what?"

Candide reached out a hand in his direction and said, "Minds if I invite my parents over for another pre-wedding getting-to-know-each-other?"

Snape sat stiffly and said, "I believe I could survive that." He glanced at Harry and let the topic drop.

Harry stared into his glass and asked, "What about your mum?"

"She'll get an invitation," Snape dryly pointed out.

Lupin broke into laughter. Snape explained, "We are NOT going through this taxing and fraught process with yet another meddlesome party."

Candide had a faint smile as she gamely assured those present: "She's on the invite list."

Lupin continued to chuckle. Snape said, "It was her choice to take herself away from the world. We simply are catering to that."

- 888 -

During lunchtime at the Ministry, Harry rushed about trying to get his errands all finished. At Gringotts, the queue for the exchange—headed by a gaggle of foreign witches, straw-like hair standing in all directions as they hunched over a sack from which they counted out individual triangular copper coins—was too long to make it through in several lunch hours, let alone one, so Harry instead asked the floor Goblin to fetch Ron to take him to his vault.

Ron gamely did so, chatting all the while about the Cannons as the mine car rolled and surged over the sparsely braced, randomly coursing, splitting, and recombining rails. Ron controlled their transport with flicks of his foot on the levers as though it required almost no attention despite the breakneck pace.

With his pocket weighted down with enough gold for yet another wand, Harry stepped back out into the bustling Diagon Alley. Ron followed, also blinking rapidly to ward off the brightness of daylight. Harry weaved through the shoppers and paused outside the window of Weasley Wizard Wheezes. Beyond the rain-streaked glass, stacks of brightly colored boxes, some with thick brass straps holding them closed, sat beneath mobiles replicating various Quidditch teams. The tiny figures at the farthest orbit of each set swerved and strained at their wires in an attempt to get at the opposing-colored players.

"I need to ask your brothers something," Harry said.

A set of bells chimed out the Lyke Wake Dirge when Harry pushed the door open. Ron elbowed him, saying, "You have a pocket full of gold. You just can't resist."

Harry did not bother to correct him on this mistaken point. In the back of the cluttered shop Harry found one of the twins stocking things behind the counter. When Harry leaned over the stained and burned surface and gestured, George crawled closer, forcing Harry to crouch too in order to speak with him in confidence. George peered at Harry around Verity's pink robes. She gave George a playful kick as she gave change to a customer.

Before Harry could formulate his question, the George whispered, "How's Ron doing?"

"Oh, er, seems fine."

"Good. Mum's been giving us hell, I'll tell you. You'd think we'd never done anything to him before or something." He sighed. "What'dya need?"

"I wanted to know if you ever sold or . . . made anything like a giant black inflatable spiked ball."

George placed the brown-paper wrapped boxes onto the counter and stood. Harry gratefully followed suit. "You're looking for one?"

Harry waited for the young customer, who was giving him a silly grin, to slowly wander off before continuing with, "No, I saw one and guessed it was your handiwork."

George pondered that, finally asking, "We in trouble?" He sounded surprisingly serious for a Weasley twin.

"No, I'm trying to track something down is all. This is just me asking." Harry was glad he could be honest about that; it reinforced his asking around on his own.

George relaxed. "We had something . . ." He moved to the dimmest corner of the shop, shaded by tall full racks from the light of the windows, and began searching through the lowest shelves. "Hey, Verity?" he shouted, then thought better and went over to her to whisper to her privately.

He returned and continued to pull the lowest front items off and stack them on the floor, revealing different, older boxes packed behind, thoroughly haphazard. He pulled out a box and handed it up to Harry and returned to searching. "That's the Giant Birds of Prey Pack. We had a Giant Ocean-Bottom Pack too, but I don't see it now." Harry stared at the crudely painted pictures of raptors, vultures, and even a pterodactyl on the box lid. George went on, "They were right popular for theme parties for a while there. Then like all great ideas, they became passé like that." He snapped his fingers.

Harry turned the box over. A warning had been inked in red along the margin as an afterthought: Stand far back from minibirds before using expansion spell. And on the other margin: For best results expand only in very very large room with high ceiling. The "verys" were triple underlined.

"There was a sea urchin in the Ocean Pack?" When George nodded, Harry asked, "How big did it get?"

George held his arms out wide. "Originally, it would roll around the party following the fish as they "swam" but too many people complained of torn robes and rugs and drapery, so we left them stupid and static instead." He started putting the newer boxes back in front of the older faded ones. "Which is no fun, really. I spent a lot of time getting the rolling just right. It was tough, it actually had to walk on its spikes. Which sounds simple, but really isn't." He shook his head sadly. "We now have to only come up with things that seem dangerous, but really aren't. That's tough." He craned his neck like a periscope to check that Ron was nowhere near. "Even then people do dumb stuff with things we think are completely safe."

Harry tried to hand the box back, but he was waved off. "Give it to Ginny if you don't want it. She begged me for a set, but at the time, we couldn't make them fast enough."

Harry tucked the box under his arm. As George squeezed by Harry in the narrow aisle, he said, "Oh, and realize that they are only aloft for about an hour, in case you decide to make your house-elf ride one. Had trouble with that once." He scooped the boxes back off the counter and ducked out of sight.

Harry searched the narrow aisles and found Ron selecting colorful sweets from a wall-full of bins. He held a struggling licorice tarantula between his fingers and he gazed at it suspiciously. "Ah," Ron said accusingly, gesturing with the spider at the box under Harry's arm. "Knew you couldn't resist." He dropped the spider back in the bin and wiped his fingers on his trousers. Peering into the paper sack he held, he said, "Guess that will make lunch."

Harry panicked, having forgotten the time. He pulled out his watch and found it was only three minutes until his training resumed. "I've got to run. See you later," he said, patting his friend on the arm to be certain he heard before he Disapparated.

Running, Harry just had time to stash the box of Giant Birds and his spare gold in his locker, seal it with the best spell he knew, and skid into the training room, out of breath. Rodgers gave him a depreciating look, but withheld comment.

Harry's stomach growled through the afternoon and by the time they were finished, he was keenly focused on getting home for a snack. But he needed to go back to Diagon Alley for a wand. He left the Giant Birds Pack balanced awkwardly beside his spare jacket and pulled out the sack of gold.

Tonks strode into the changing room as Harry's fellows departed. As though speaking for his hollow stomach, she said, "I have half an hour before my shift if you want to find an early bite."

"Sounds great," Harry said, weighing the sack in his hand before slipping it into his pocket. "I need to go Diagon Alley anyway. I told Elizabeth I'd buy her a new wand."

By unstated agreement, they Apparated into the Leaky Cauldron. On the way through the wall in back, Tonks asked, "Why doesn't Elizabeth get her own wand?"

"It's a long story," Harry said, thinking stressfully of his friend stuck at home with an overbearing Muggle father. "Her father burned her old one. He's getting difficult about magic." The alley was sparser with shoppers than lunchtime so Harry's sigh was quite audible. Elizabeth's situation disproportionately irritated him, so he was not paying attention to what he said. "It'd be good if she moved out, from what I could get out of her. I took her for a ride on my bike; other than her lessons, I wonder if she's been allowed out."

"You what?" Tonks asked. Harry heard the warning tone this time and realized belatedly that he should have heard it in her previous question too. They were stopped before Ollivanders, but Harry did not reach for the door handle.

His hesitation did not help. Tonks said, "You've never taken me for a ride on Sirius' old motorbike."

It was odd. Tonks, when angry, normally put her hands on her hips and cocked her head. She did not do that now; her arms hung slack, head craning forward. Harry sensed a crumbling cliff edge before him and had no idea how to avoid skidding over it. "We can go anytime you like," he stated. He held off on adding anything about her never having the time, certain it would compound the looming confrontation.

Now, she more familiarly propped her hands on her hips, and let her body kink into a zig-zag topped in spikes of pink. "So, what else did you do?"

Harry could not help it. He knew better, but did not have time to analyze his own quick anger. "Tonks, this is stupid," he said of her getting upset.

"Oh, right . . . silly me."

"It is silly. You sound like it matters if I take a friend out for ice creams."

Tonks colored slightly. Harry was not sure, but her hair appeared to edge more to the red too. "When she's . . . a cute . . . thing in distress, of course it matters."

Harry felt dropped in the middle of a maze and had to stop and try to take stock of his position. Passing shoppers slowed at Tonks' tone and Harry tried not to care what they heard, nor fear that Skeeter may appear any second, quill already blazing.

"Look," Harry said, thinking he'd feel more certain about how to handle a vampire than a jealous girlfriend, "I need to get a wand real quick and then we can get some dinner."

"I don't think I really have time for both of those," she snipped and Disapparated.

Harry swore, garnering disapproving looks from a pair of approaching witches burdened with packages. He took a deep breath and stubbornly continued his errand rather than chase Tonks immediately.

Inside the store, the quiet clashed with his disturbed emotions and klaxon-loud thoughts. Ollivander wandered to the front, hands clasped before him as though to exude calm.

Harry said, "Good day again. I need a birch wand with a unicorn hair core . . . for a friend."

Ollivander turned away with a small bow, pausing to ask, "Do you know what length, perchance?"

Thinking it should be easy to hide, Harry said, "Shortest you have, please."

Ollivander waved his sliding ladder over and climbed it to fetch a small grey box which he returned to Harry. Inside it was an eight-inch wand, looking petite and innocuous. Harry began counting out the same thirty Galleons his own wand had cost. Ollivander waved off the last ten.

"Tell your friend if the wand does not fit, it can be exchanged."

Harry's thoughts were already flying ahead. He reined them back in and said, "Thanks, I will."

Ollivander froze him in place by asking, "And you are how, Mr. Potter?" He sounded more than conversational. He sounded as though he felt it a duty to keep track of Harry.

Harry pulled his attention completely back to the dusty old shop where he stood. "In a hurry I'm afraid, otherwise, quite well."

This even-headed, though rushed, answer, drew a reassured smile from Ollivander, who nodded him out.

Pocketing the small, bright blond wand, Harry stepped out of the shop and Disapparated for the Ministry before he could be overrun by an teetering cart stacked with noisy animal cages.

At the Ministry, Harry slipped into the office and not finding Tonks, proceeded to check the rest of the Department. He located her in the break room, nibbling on a stale Danish and looking dangerously peeved. Her lips pursed when her gaze came up to Harry's.

Harry realized that he should have prepared what to say because he found he only wanted to repeat himself. "I don't know what's wrong," Harry said.

This apparently deserved a dubious raised pink eyebrow. Harry worked very hard to not get angry again. Rogan's voice interrupted, calling down the corridor: "Call's come in!"

Tonks dropped the pastry heel on the table and slipped by Harry without touching him, which wasn't easy given that he was blocking the doorway. Harry followed her down to the offices where she picked her teeth with a long pinky nail while reading a slip. "Yeah, I'll take it. Call Kingsley in too." She Disapparated.

Harry picked up the slip because it was only Rogan manning the office and Harry expected he would not criticize him for doing so. Harry knew where Upminster was and knew the most likely Apparition area Tonks would use. He carefully set the slip back on the pile. He should not go. He would be in the way. It would be best to wait till later to talk. Harry knew all of these things, but he Disapparated anyhow.

Harry arrived in the shadow of a windmill. Tonks was there but it took Harry a moment to recognize her in the disguise of a pensioner wearing a long grey cardigan. She clearly expected Harry to be someone else.

"What are you doing here?" she whispered.

Harry ducked slightly like she was and glanced around for danger. "I wanted to talk to you."

"Not now," she hissed, clearly disturbed.

Harry plowed on because he had just then put his finger on the problem, "I don't understand why you don't trust me."

Tonks had her wand out already; she angled it at Harry. "I'm seconds from hitting you with a Mummy Curse and sending you back to the Ministry. Get out of here."

She truly sounded like she meant it. A low bang! sounded nearby. Tonks ducked under a strut to glance around the side of the windmill. "Kingsley's coming," she whispered, but Harry was gone. Tonks glance around. She'd only heard one Apparition noise and wondered if Harry had pulled an invisibility cloak over his head. Shacklebolt's approach, in the khaki guise of a parks worker, aborted Tonks' wondering about Harry's quiet exit.

Harry sighed into the grey gloom of the Dark Plane. Something scuffled over the ground in the distance and then silence permeated the dank, earthy air. Harry felt intermittently empty and annoyed. He wished to not care at all because there was no chance for an argument to hash things out, so he might as well ignore it. But the will to do so was not sufficient to make it happen.

Delaying returning to the world of sunshine, Harry strolled in a random direction. He walked hunched, hands in pockets, thoughts far away. He wondered what time Tonks would return from the assignment, then told himself not to care. Did she really trust him so little to display such jealousy? It was true that she had also behaved badly when she learned about him dating Belinda. Perhaps he should have seen this coming.

Harry's thoughts circled on in this vein as he trod on the fine grey dust. He perhaps should have been more attentive to where he was going, but he felt more secure here than most anywhere else. So, he was quite startled when a loop of rusted wire caught his ankle and he tripped. Clumsily, he tried to tug his hands free of his robe pockets to stop himself from crashing down into the mass of abrasive metal looming before him. He could not catch himself in time and he would painfully, if not fatally, be entangled. Instinctively, he fell through the ground short of striking it.

In that instant, Harry's body was flattened and pressed as though to squeeze it through the crack between the great unyielding doors of Hogwarts castle. A blast of absolute zero grazed him at the narrowest point of his passage, but he was helpless to reverse course. The excruciating crushing and drawing out as though he were mere clay made him certain this was the end. But the deadly pressure released just as the cold began to numb him and he was ejected out of the ground on the other side, only dimly aware of tumbling into tall, saw-edged grass before he lost consciousness.

Harry rose to consciousness slowly, chilled to the core, but with the sunlight blessedly warming his flesh because of his dark robe. A cord in his neck screamed when he moved his face away from the sun. Ants were crawling up his nose and thick grass stems stabbed him behind the ear.

When he could, Harry rose up and stood on cold-creaky limbs and looked about. Half fallen trees lined a dip where a creek ran. He stumbled over hidden ruts in the grass, too weak to catch himself without severe straining that only increased his misery. Half decayed, bleached, and sagging wood houses came into view through the ragged forest, matching the half-dead and bleached trees surrounding them. A whiff of curse attracted his gaze to one house in particular. It was the only house with smoke coming out of the chimney. A spell masked the smoke, making it visible only if one looked beyond it at just the right angle.

Harry stretched his neck side to side, pulled his shoulders back and took out his wand. He felt vaguely confident he could reverse his accidental arrival but did not want to face the Dark Plane again until he was strong and clearheaded. While he recuperated and finished warming his bones, he moved to satisfy his curiosity about where he had ended up.

The occupied house was spelled in layered and subtle ways. Harry stepped in an ungainly manner over and around the cursed zones on the ground—laid out in an invisible maze—until he finally reached the door. Like at the house where the Vampire had taken over, Harry simply knocked, wand at his side, obscured by his robe sleeve. The man who jerked open the door startled Harry severely, but he hid it quickly. Snape gazed with equal alarm back at Harry. Harry blinked and felt a chill permeating him again, but this time from the ice in Snape's eyes. Snape's hair was astoundingly disheveled and his eyes showed wrinkles at the corners that Harry had not noticed before.

Snape gazed intensely at Harry and harshly whispered, “Potter . . .” But his eyes then took in Harry’s own with close scrutiny, then narrowed in further confusion as though they were unexpected.

Harry, for lack of anything else to say, said, “Hello, Severus,” and stood on tip-toe to peer inquisitively beyond at the small room. It was full of books, which gave Harry some reassurance.

“What the devil are you doing here?” Snape demanded in a low voice.

“Good question,” Harry answered amiably despite his racing brain. “I’m not sure.” Snape had stepped back as though to verify something in the room. Harry used the opening to stride inside. He felt and heard, rather than saw, Snape’s jerk of surprise as he passed. The small room was clearly well lived in but in need of a good cleaning. Maybe the cold had addled his brains, but they refused to piece things together.

Harry finished his short circuit and looked about himself. It felt Snape-like in every way except wholly unfamiliar. Where was he? Harry wondered. What was Snape doing here, and what had transpired to change him so?

“What happened to your eyes?” Snape asked warily, voice demanding an answer.

Harry laughed lightly in a kind of weird relief that this could not be the man he knew. Gamely, he answered honestly, “Playing with too-powerful magicks. Or . . . I am told that's what caused it." He again considered Snape, who was holding his wand just shy of ready. Harry continued to expect that at any moment this was going to make some sense.

Snape said slowly, “Must have been . . . rather powerful. Your Occlumency certainly has improved.” He sounded disappointed and annoyed.

Harry grinned to himself, finding light amusement in that compliment. “Can’t get by without it. You don’t need your wand,” he said, holding his hands up, empty, wand caught on his sleeve hem, easy to retrieve.

Snape lowered his wand only an inch. “You will forgive me given that the last three times we have met, you have tried to kill me.”

“Oh,” Harry said, glomming fully onto the notion that if there were an unfamiliar Snape that there was an unfamiliar Harry Potter as well. He scratched behind his ear and pondered that, but felt only additional unease. He gave the room closer scrutiny in hopes of a clue.

“You should not be here,” Snape hissed.

Harry was examining a trinket on a crude shelf without touching it, it was a locket that looked vaguely familiar. “That I know, believe me. I should have just left, but I was curious.” He moved on to study a shelf packed so tight with books that they were stuffed in on top and curled to fit in every available gap. Harry asked, “So satisfy my curiosity: why are you here rather than Shrewsthorpe?”

There was a palpably uncomfortable gap before Snape retorted, “What?”

Harry shrugged. “I mean, this isn’t really much of a holiday cottage. What’s wrong with your house?”

Snape sounded oddly disturbed as he cautiously answered, “It is much easier to layer barriers here than in the middle of an occupied village. How did you get through them by the way?”

Harry ignored the question. A creaking bookshelf swinging inward drew his attention that way and Harry flicked his wand into his hand as Peter Pettigrew came into view, ducking low to see into the ground floor from a hidden staircase. Poisonous anger filled Harry. “Get out of my sight,” Harry snarled, aiming his wand and gripping it as though to crush the wood of it. “Go!” he insisted when Pettigrew merely froze in shock. “Or I’ll finish the job I stupidly stopped Sirius from doing and it will be long and excruciating as befitting a bloody traitor like you!” Harry’s anger surprised himself and Pettigrew, apparently sensing his unbalancing of Harry, retreated back up the stairs with a squeak of fear.

The hidden door swung closed with a thud. Harry lowered his wand and paced, thinking fiercely. Where is this where Pettigrew is still alive? Reluctantly, he closed his eyes on the current sight of the ghostly etched glass of the potion bottles crammed tight on the shelf before him and let himself drift. The dark stain of evil that reached its fingers under his lowered guard made him jerk. Voldemort. Great effing Merlin, Harry thought. It’s him. Not a pale shadow of him, but full force, followers free, will-not-die him. Harry opened his eyes and turned to his unexpected host, who was giving him a penetrating stare in return. “Well,” Harry breathed, sounding stunned.

“Problem?” Snape sneered.

“Pretend I know nothing and catch me up with what’s been happening.”

Snape managed to appear even more annoyed, which was no small trick. “Were you Obliviated, Potter? Or knocked silly?”

“In a sense,” Harry said, recovering his earlier amiable manner mostly because it alarmed this Snape so thoroughly and he was willing to grasp for any shield under the circumstances.

“You truly wish me to fill you in?” Snape asked, disgust lining his words.

“Yeah, what is happening with Voldemort?” Harry asked and heard Snape flinch since it rustled his robes.

“DO NOT use his name in my presence. If you are foolish enough to use it around your little friends, that is your own stupidity. But. Not. Here.” He looked as though he wanted to raise his wand but instead it vibrated at his side.

Harry shrugged and asked calmly, “All right, what is happening with the Dark Lord?”

“Suffice to say he is gaining in power, nearly unchecked at this point. It is unclear how he will be brought down given how much he has survived to date.”

Harry considered that. “Haven’t all the Horcruxes been found?” he asked, thinking that might explain things. Perhaps they were more powerful here.

Snape’s head drifted downwards as though he might collapse before he turned and paced the very short distance to the grimy window. “That explains enormous amounts,” he whispered. “Bloody hell.”

Harry considered that his Snape hadn’t known that either. “Why aren’t you at Hogwarts?” he asked.

Snape turned such a disbelieving glare on him before raising his wand; although he didn’t appear to have a spell prepared. “What the devil are you on about, Potter? You are at least aware Dumbledore is dead, correct?” he mocked. “You were certainly there when he died.”

“Yeah,” Harry retorted, losing his calm. “He went when he wanted to go. What’s that got to do with it?”

Snape nearly dropped his wand his hand fell so fast. “You’ve finally figured that out?” he snidely asked.

Harry was thinking that perhaps he did not have it figured out at all. He held in a response. Instead he asked another question, “Why is Wormtail here with you?” This really bothered him, more than mysterious differences about Dumbledore and almost more than Voldemort himself.

“I was assigned to look after him, an assignment that has lasted far too long. Lasts any longer and I’ll kill him myself.”

Harry laughed, which brought Snape’s wand up to his point at his throat. “Who are you?” he demanded, voice low, head tilted predatorily.

Calmly, lifting his chin to keep the wand from hurting the soft flesh of his throat when he talked, Harry replied, “Harry Potter isn’t the answer you’re looking for, I assume.”

Harry’s scar throbbed and then seared. He closed his eyes to avoid giving this away and found seven more shadows hovering very, very close. “Were you expecting company?” Harry asked.

“Not you, certainly,” Snape replied smoothly, greasily.

“No, I mean other Death Eaters. Seven of them, besides the two of you, just arrived in the village.”

Snape’s alarm was clear, even as it bounced between Harry's strange knowledge and the prospect that he was correct. Snape paced the floor, tossing a barrier status spell in each direction. A knock sounded on the door. Harry backed into the corner beside the door, wand at ready.

“Who is it?” Snape asked.

“Bella, Severus dear.”

Harry gagged at the honey-covered tone. The door was opened with the queer fake gallantry Snape employed when he truly disliked the visitor. “And to what do I owe this visit?” he asked with impressive casualness as he moved to the far side of the room. “Tea?”

“No, I think not.” She held her wand up, aimed at him.

Snape turned from the tea set and considered her. “And this is for?” he asked with an innocent lilt.

“Being a traitor, Severus,” she said with disturbed pleasure. “Our Lord has gifted me with the honor of making you pay dearly.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. The Dark Lord would never-” But his words were cut off as he grabbed his arm as though his mark burned. He recovered his composure with effort, clearly suffering. He did not release his arm but clung to it as though it were deadwood and he a drowning man.

Bellatrix spoke before him. “I just finished with Mungdungus, Severus. He was a weak soul, so not equal to my skills." She purred, "You are.”

Snape was suddenly on his knees and Harry at first believed Bellatrix had hit him with something but she said, “We altered your barriers, Severus. You aren’t going anywhere except your own personal hell.”

Harry, scar searing as he had never remembered it doing, leapt across the room just as the door, rickety as it was, dissolved in a sparkling spell and a whoosh. Harry jumped a low table and landed in a crouch at Snape’s side. Snape was just putting his foot flat to stand again. Harry took him by the wrist, looked over his shoulder into the red, fiery eyes of Voldemort—who in that instant stood fixed by surprise in the doorway—and dropped both of them through the floor. If the vampire had not dragged Harry along through the interstice, Harry would not have been prepared for how much force it took to pull another along. He may have tragically let go, assuming he would have killed his companion on the way.

Harry did not have a destination in mind so when they landed in the grey dirt of the underworld, he paused to regroup. Instantly, creatures scrambled over the rough ground in their direction. Harry still had Snape’s wrist in hand and Snape, who looked about himself in consternation, did not seem to notice.

“Where is this?” he asked quietly, forced to shirk away from the snapping maw of a half giant ant, half weasel.

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Harry said. “I just have to figure out where we are go-”

He was interrupted by the old werewolf charging at them from around a large hillock. Harry leaned toward the monster and stared him down, making him bay and grovel between snarls. Snape tried to retreat the other way, tugging on Harry’s grip. Harry turned and snarled in his direction, “Don’t fight me! They’ll eat you alive.”

Snape froze and glared at Harry before glancing around them at the myriad distorted creatures clambering over one another, salivating at him. He stopped resisting with a fatalistic drop of his shoulders. Harry thought of where he could take them and Apparated them both to another spot inside the Dark Plane before dropping them both through the ground and, after a long struggle for Harry to get his companion through, into the green-meadowed sunlight. Harry released his hold on Snape and immediately closed his eyes. He was relieved this time to find Voldemort and many, many shadows hovering in the middle distance of his mind. That meant he had not mistakenly transported this Snape back to where Harry himself belonged.

Snape was shaking his robes out. “This is an improvement. Where are we now?” he asked in a tone that conveyed an almost subservient attitude.

“The reserve about twenty miles north of Shrewsthorpe,” Harry explained. He had settled on arriving in the area the witches used because it was open and he didn’t want to arrive into a trap, and given the witches regular use of devices here, he expected it connected well to the Dark Plane. He looked the worn Snape up and down. His hair was indescribably filthy, and his face were sunken as though from long term stress and poor eating.

“We should get you some dinner,” Harry suggested, eliciting a look of disbelief. It didn’t fade right away, so Harry added, “And I can try to explain.”

While Snape stared into the distance as though plotting, Harry considered that unlike a time turner, he could not damage things here; he had not moved through time, only through possibility. Somewhere in the past there had been a forking of events and this place was the alternative outcome. He hoped to Merlin that he COULD get home again.

“I know an Inn in Wolverbury. It is just a little north,” Snape said. And when Harry willingly offered an arm, Snape shook his head and grasped it. They arrived between a tall old car grill and a brick wall. A rusty abandoned car faced them down, tilted on its broken suspension. They walked around it and inside where only one customer sat hunched at the bar. The barman gave them a narrow-eyed look, especially Snape.

“Which o’ya is payin’?” he asked doubtfully.

Harry reached into his robe pocket and held up the twenty pound notes, which spurred the man to gesture at a table. He and Snape sat to face each other beside a cracked and taped stained glass window.

“Beers?” the barman shouted. Harry shook his head, but Snape gestured that he would have one.

“What do you want to eat?” Harry asked. “I’m buying.”

Snape shook his head lightly and appeared to consider Disapparating. When the drink was plunked onto the bar, Harry picked it up and ordered a plowman’s platter. With another distasteful glance at the two of them, the barman stalked into the back without a word.

Snape sucked down the top quarter of his beer as though it were the elixir of life. Harry began, “I’m not in the right place.”

“I was beginning to suspect that,” Snape said. “You are too gently confident, for one thing, rather than obnoxiously heedless, and you have rather unexpected powers.” He turned his mug around once, leaving wet rings on the rough wood of the table. “So, where do you belong?”

“Somewhere else,” Harry stated vaguely.

“Somewhere where you do not try to kill me on sight,” Snape said with forced pleasantness.

“Correct,” Harry said. Banging from the kitchen gave him a chance to think. “I’m not sure what to do. Just go home . . . I’ve interfered already. But I don’t think it matters.” At Snape’s odd expression, Harry quickly amended with: “Well, it matters that I saved your life, but you may have managed to get away on your own if I hadn’t been distracting you.”

Snape rubbed his forearm and flinched as though suffering a strong stab of pain on top of unending agony. Harry felt badly for him but did not express this, knowing it would not be accepted.

It wasn’t until the platter was empty that Snape spoke again. “That place you took us to get us out of Weaver’s End . . . I have read about such a place. Perrodrick, an insane wizard in the six hundreds, claimed there was a magical pathway to the underworld.”

“The Dark Plane,” Harry clarified. “I’ve never taken anyone through it before. Got dragged through it myself recently. But I didn’t see any choice but to try. It was risky. I'm glad you came through all right.”

Snidely, Snape asked, “Do you go there often?”

"It gets me under barriers, as you saw."

Snape's brows rose at the possibilities of that. He sipped at the last inch of his beer as though to drag it out. "Dark Lord gone where you come from?"

"Not exactly. But neutralized."

"Are you the one who did the neutralizing?"

Harry nodded.

Snape fell thoughtful and brushed his hair back, which was hopeless given its condition. "And you are one of the Horcruxes?"

"Yes. That's why the Dark Lord is still around. I can't bring myself to really finish the job."

Snape snorted lightly and tilted his beer to better examine it. "Understandable."

He looked utterly worn down and on the verge of self-destruction. Harry pulled out and pushed the folded stack of pounds over to him. "Take it."

Snape left it in the middle of the table. "It only delays the inevitable. Everything is doom."

"No," Harry snapped sharply. "You of all people cannot give up. Not after all this time."

Snape rubbed his eyes and held his fingers pressed over his face. "I believe I am hallucinating you."

Harry jerked one of Snape's hands down when they remained for more than a minute. "I can tell you what needs to happen. Believe me, I know."

Snape put his hands down flat on the table and stared at Harry. "Go ahead. Hallucination or not, this may be helpful."

"You have to get your Harry Potter to forgive you. Volde- The Dark Lord owns him until you do."

Snape's face twisted downward into a kind of mad tragic humor. "Impossible."

"No, it's not," Harry insisted. "You're the key to all of this and all you've been doing is hiding out."

Snape grew angry, which gave Harry hope. "That is not 'all I have been doing'. I have been passing messages in secret to the Order through the one person who still trusted me."


Snape nodded grimly.

Harry pushed the money closer to him. "Take it. I'd give you more if I had it."

Snape raised a slim, almost skeletal hand and did so. "And as for you . . . you are just going to pop on home?" he sarcastically asked.

Harry grew uncertain. "I'm going to give it a good try. It was an accident coming here, one I'll have to reverse." Harry stood, prepared to depart if only to relieve his own chest-clenching fear about whether he was trapped here. He said firmly, "He's capable of forgiving you. You just have to be patient."

"That is the one thing I possess zero of with him."

"Try, Severus," Harry heard himself pleading, caring even though he did not wish to. "It's the only way."

When Harry moved to leave, Snape restrained him with a claw-like grip on his arm. "Prove you are not a hallucination by telling me what magic changed your eyes so."

Harry relaxed his arm against the bones crushing it. "I turned the Dark Lord into a Muggle. I carved his magic out of him so he'd be harmless."

Snape's grip did not ease. "I don't think the Potter I know can do that."

"He'll think of something else," Harry assured him. "He's clever under pressure." Snape's grip released suddenly and he turned back to his empty mug as though expecting Harry to depart. Harry added in a low voice, "If he feels hatred when he faces the Dark Lord, he is doomed."

Snape's gaze did not come back to him, so Harry departed.

Back in the Dark Plane, Harry walked a bit, paying far more attention than before to what was around him. When he was back to the familiar area opposing his house, he stopped, certain if he inverted he would not find home. He did so anyway and indeed he arrived in a dusty grim house where the smashed windows were boarded up and the burned balcony had not been repaired but had been left to rot and dangle halfway to the ground floor. The hall floor rug underfoot had been chewed by mice down to a ragged triangle. Harry's eyes adjusted to the darkness and he let them follow up the stairs and around to where his room was, or would be if he were in another place.

Harry had to get to that other place or die trying.

Returning to the even mustier Dark Plane, Harry rehearsed what had happened last time. He had a gut feeling that it was not the interaction with the metal, but the falling sideways that had done it.

Harry dropped his shoulders and bolstered himself. The house was below him, above him. His house. It was there, waiting. The thought of never returning brought his heart rate up and keened his senses nearly to overload.

Harry chewed his lip and remembered long ago when Snape had tested him by standing him in an active pentagram device. It was dark magic because it thinned the barrier between the living world and the underworld. Harry had envisioned a hundred successive floors and ground in that spot. Snape had suggested that Harry was seeing temporally, but Harry now realized it was dimensionally. If he could see it that easily, he should be able to find his way. This thought calmed him considerably.

Harry stepped back and looked around himself. Dragging his foot in the grey dust, he drew a pentagram as tall as himself and then stood staring at it. The grass on a nearby hillock rustled as something crawled by. There was no howling in the distance. A deathly silence ruled after the furtive creature moved on.

Harry had to get home but he had no knowledge of pentagrams and the magic surrounding them. If he could activate this one, maybe it would be easier, he thought, but he knew nothing about how to do that. It made him recognize the gaping hole in his knowledge, one he had preferred until this moment.

"Some dark wizard hunter I am," Harry wryly muttered. "I don't even know how the most basic dark wizardry works."

He stepped into the center of the dry pentagram but felt no vibration of power. He imagined what he had felt that day in the storage room and tried to impose it on this one. He closed his eyes and imagined home. He imagined the opposite of the house he had just visited: one bright with light, freshly redecorated, with voices, movement, and grave concern for him should he never return. Home.

With that place, that plane, firmly fixed in his mind, Harry toppled sideways and at the last second fell through ground.

The excruciating slip between planes was the same as last time. Harry was flattened between icy walls that crushed absolute cold into his body. He was folded and mangled until he was certain the life had been wrung from heart and his bones reduced to rubble.

Harry landed hard on a freshly polished wood floor, shaking violently with cold. Adrenalin propelled his unwilling limbs to seek heat. It was a grey rainy day here and the crackle of a fire drew him like a moth to the drawing room. Scrambling clumsily on senseless hands and knees, Harry approached the salvation of the fire, and fell, striking his head on the andiron inside the hearth.

NEXT: Chapter 7

Harry raised his head and found Snape's concerned gaze. "What happened?" Harry asked him.

"That's what I was going to ask you," Snape said, sounding angry with a hint of distraught.

"Oh," Harry said, again restrained from rubbing the bump on his head and this time the Healer added an admonishing slap on the hand. Harry insisted upon sitting up and no one stopped him from doing so. The drawing room was not the location he thought he should be in, but that did not mean he knew where he expected to be.

Author's Notes Most likely ten days again before chapter 7. Life is crazy.

Chapter 7: Edge of a Dream
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Chapter 7 -- Edge of a Dream

Candide came running when called and found Snape unceremoniously tugging an unconscious Harry to the center of the drawing room floor.

"Get a Healer, quickly," he said, spritzing Harry's head with a water charm. The noxious scent of burned hair tainted the room.

Candide closed her mouth on the question she was about to ask and ran out. When she returned, Snape was gripping each of Harry's hands in turn.

"He is frozen nearly stiff, what the devil was he doing?" Snape aimed a heating charm at Harry's chest, but the yellow-orange spell wavered with a buzzing sound and burst before it could reach him.

"What was that?" Candide asked breathlessly.

Snape rubbed his hair back, long fingers clenching. "I do not know. Get a blanket. A heavy one. We'll charm that instead to warm or he will likely freeze to death."

Harry roused to wakefulness from deep within a cocoon of heavenly warm, but scratchy, blanket. The first sight he had was of an out-of-context familiar face in pale blue robes.

"Didn't you used to play Beater?" Harry asked the Healerwitch.

"Yup. That's why I know that someone thought your head was a Bludger."

Harry tried to rub his aching head but was stopped from doing so. "That why it hurts so bad?"

"He'll be fine. His core temp is normal now," the witch said to someone else in the room.

Harry raised his head and found Snape's concerned gaze. "What happened?" Harry asked him.

"That's what I was going to ask you," Snape said, sounding angry with a hint of distraught.

"Oh," Harry said, again restrained from rubbing the bump on his head and this time the Healer added an admonishing slap on the hand. Harry insisted upon sitting up and no one stopped him from doing so, but his head tried. The drawing room was not the location he thought he should be in, but that did not mean he did know where he expected to be.

The Healer departed after final instructions were given and Harry finally got to feel how bad the bump was. It felt like his skull was trying to grow a spike out of it, or a horn. "Ow."

Snape leaned close and looked him hard in the eyes. "You do not remember what happened? You were nearly frozen when you crawled in here. What spell were you attempting?"

Harry rubbed the rest of his head as he thought about that, glad to find it unharmed otherwise. "I wasn't doing any spells. I don't know what happened."

Snape rolled his eyes and huffed in disgust.

"Sorry," Harry said, wincing as his head pounded momentarily, in rhythm with his heartbeat.

- 888 -

Harry was kept home from training the next day, and he wandered the house like a caged animal. He still had not talked to Tonks, but today he felt embarrassed about having followed her while she was on duty and very grateful that she had not told anyone. Well, he expected that he would have received a visit and a good talking to by Rodgers or an owl from Mr. Weasley had they been informed. Harry wandered into the drawing room, badly in need of a distraction and wishing he were at the Ministry.

Candide, before rushing to the office, had delivered Elizabeth's wand, the now-vaguely-dreaded object that had started his argument with Tonks, so Harry had nothing to do.

"I thought you had things to take care of at Hogwarts?" Harry asked his guardian.

Snape looked up from the musty old book he had open and said, "Remus offered to do them."

"You're staying home to babysit me," Harry accused grumpily.

"If you wish to drop the façade, then yes," Snape stated.

Harry rolled his eyes and tapped his toe against the doorframe in frustration. "Want to practice some spells with me?"


"I'm not hurt really. Why not?"

"My ego cannot take the hit at this time," Snape stated, returning to his reading.

"Hmf," Harry muttered, inclined to belief because of the unlikelihood that Snape would offer that as a diversionary excuse. Harry dropped into one of the other chairs in the room and propped his chin on his palms. His bored mind flittered from one thing to another restlessly, but it kept coming back around to an incongruous vision of Snape answering the door to let Bellatrix Lestrange in. No meaning could be attached to this memory.

"I had the strangest dream last night," Harry said, excusing the vision the only way he could. Snape was not one to prompt and he did not do so now. Harry went on, "I was trying to protect you from Bellatrix . . . and Voldemort too." Harry rubbed his eyes and tightened his shoulders at the memory of Voldemort's poisonous and unyielding power snaking into his inner vision. He wished his dreams would not chose to torment him so; he had had more than enough of the evil wizard and dearly wished to be left alone by memories or imaginings of him.

"I assume they are both still incarcerated," Snape said levelly as though to reassure Harry.

"It wasn't Lockhart. It was the real thing."

Snape sat straight and steepled his hands over the book. "You think this dream means something more than that you still have stressful events involving him that you need to recover from."

"I don't know," Harry said. "I certainly don't feel Voldemort now. I could in the dream."

"Was there anything in your dream not reminiscent of recent events?"

Harry sat back and said, "You were in this strange house and . . . you didn't know who I was. Well, that's not quite true. You kept expecting me to try and attack you. And you said something about Dumbledore and how long it took me to understand that he had died when he wanted to." Harry shook his head and let those thoughts repeat themselves. "I've accepted that," he added, slightly defensive.

Snape paused before suggesting, "Maybe you have not truly."

Harry sighed. "I still miss him. Maybe I haven't completely accepted it."

Snape moved as though to return to his reading. "Dreams are just the subconscious working things out when the conscious is out of the way and cannot prevent it from doing so."

Harry smiled lightly. "So what does it mean that I found you living in a hovel in a half-abandoned town. Interpret that for me," he challenged, teasing. "You called it 'Weaver's End'."

Snape froze. "What?"

"What does it mean-"

"I heard you the first time," he snapped.

Harry shut up while Snape stood and paced once, disturbing the rug as he passed the corner of it. Impatient, Harry finally asked, "There is such a place?"

"Yes. I have an old hideout there."

Harry's stomach clenched faintly. "You do?"

Snape considered Harry. "I have not been there in rather a long time." After thinking longer, he gestured for Harry to stand, Accioed their cloaks, and said, "Come, let's pay a visit and see if it is the place you dreamed. We can then add clairvoyant to your already long list of skills."

Harry hooked on his cloak but held back on raising his arm to be Apparated. "I don't want to be clairvoyant."

"Wise young man. Take out your wand, just in case. And give me your arm."

Before Harry could protest further, they arrived at the edge of a ramshackle village. An old mill works leaned above the trees, ready to fall into a heap of bleached wood and rotting mortar. Snape led the way, tossing detection spells to each side every now and then.

Harry swished to a stop in the long grass when the familiar little house came into view.

Snape turned when he realized Harry no longer followed. "This is the place?" he asked.

Harry nodded. "It was in slightly better shape," he observed of the tenuously leaning walls and nearly hammock-like, sagging roof. "Not tough for that to be true."

Snape circled the house once before pushing open the door. Harry, gut heavy, followed. The bookshelves were empty and the furniture had been consumed by rodents, but it was the same.

Harry pointed and said, "The bookshelf there is a secret passage up," making Snape spin on his heel to stare at him again.

Snape strode that way and had to forcibly pry the hidden doorway open. Harry said, "Peter Pettigrew came down that way."

"Pettigrew?" Snape confirmed. "Hm, I was sometimes put in charge of him since he feared me enough to behave for a few hours at a time."

Harry's teeth tightened together as thought about his dad's old 'friend'. He stepped around the small house, finding no evidence of a major fight. "Maybe it wasn't a dream," Harry said, wanting to understand. "Voldemort vaporized the door, but it's intact. One of the few things that is."

"I am at a loss to explain," Snape said. "I am certain I have never mentioned this place to you or anyone in the Order. Anything else from the dream that you remember?"

Harry shook his head, but then said, "I think I took you to a pub for something to eat. You were in really poor shape." After looking Snape over, Harry said, "In contrast, you are getting a tad plump, there, Severus; I now notice."

Snape feigned insult. Harry shook his head again and winced when he forgot about the bump before rubbing it. "So, if I am clairvoyant then I would be seeing the future, but that doesn't make any sense. You would know me better than you did in the dream." Harry steered his thoughts away from an incident just recently when he threatened to attack Snape over the revelation about the prophecy that killed his parents. He could not bear to imagine the level of betrayal necessary for him to reach that state permanently.

"I don't know what to say, Harry. Perhaps you unknowingly captured memories of this place from me using Legilimency."

Harry grabbed hold of that, feeling great relief at a rational explanation. His voice came out slightly desperate. "That could be it. I hope that's it."

Snape approached and said, "You seem to be in need of a chocolate ice cream."

Harry was not finished, though and said, "I don't want to be clairvoyant. I don't want any more prophecies. I certainly don't want to be making them, let alone living them."

"Like I said," Snape said, taking Harry's upper arm with authority. "Chocolate ice cream is definitely in order."

Minutes later they were sitting in a small shop with Harry facing an opposing bowl containing three oversized and gloopy scoops, armed only with a spoon. His eating slowed periodically as his thoughts wandered.

"You are dwelling. Stop it," Snape admonished.

Harry laughed lightly. "I was thinking that the dream was my subconscious reminding me how far we've come."

"Hm," was Snape's only reply.

"I certainly wouldn't want that version of you around the house, jumpy, wand out all the time." Harry ended up grinning.

"Finish your ice cream."

- 888 -

The next day, Harry was relieved to return to training, until the third time he had to explain what had happened to necessitate a day off. Lamely, Harry replied, this time to Rogan, "I'm not certain. I hit my head and I don't remember exactly."

Even Rogan, the lowest-ranking Auror and on probation to boot, gave him a doubtful noise in reply to this. Harry wondered what the response would be if he failed to edit his explanation to include the hallucinatory Scrying. The only upbeat part of his day came at lunchtime when Tonks pulled him aside. She appeared chastised, which made Harry hopeful.

"What'd you do to yourself?" she asked, concerned.

Harry tugged off his glasses to rub his eyes. "I wish I could answer that. I don't know. I was angry at . . . angry that I couldn't argue with you properly."

Her next question knocked him back a bit. "You carry an invisibility cloak with you all the time?"

Harry hesitated answering, not understanding why she asked that. She went on. "I mean, I know you own one, but I never saw you using it around the Ministry before now. I'm sure Rodgers told you it's preferred that you not use one as a trainee. Makes you sloppy. You need to practice and re-practice your other stealth techniques."

For lack of a better response, Harry said, "I don't use it for field work."

"That's fine then," she said, patting him on the arm. "You disappeared on me, and it wasn't clear how."

Harry understood then. He had unwisely slipped away from her without a sound and she had come up with the best possible explanation for that. Harry felt worn down by his necessary deceptions with her. But there were more important things to work out. "Do you have time to talk this evening?"

Equally stilted and nervous as he, she said, "Yeah. I'll come over to your place when I'm through here."

Harry felt formal around her all of a sudden. "I have to scare up lunch," he said, gesturing in the direction of the break room.

"Go on," she said, sounding friendly but also formally stiff.

- 888 -

That evening when Tonks appeared with a bang! Harry stood from the table where they had been lingering after the meal and excused himself. He expected a piercing glance from Snape, but Snape remained fixated on the drink he held in his fingers as Harry passed him.

"Let's go out for a walk," Harry said, collecting his cloak with the expectation that Tonks would follow, and she did.

They stepped out into the late evening light that barely reached over the wall of the garden. Tonks asked, "Are you all right?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," Harry said.

"I heard that Severus brought in a Healer for you."

"Yeah, I'm fine," Harry repeated, bristling at her concern, even as another part of his mind told him it was a good sign.

On the road, Harry immediately said the thing he most dearly wanted to get off his chest. "I'm sorry I followed you. Thanks for not reporting it."

Voice normal and chummy all of a sudden, Tonks said, "I figure you won't do it again, so there's no reason to get Arthur or Reggie involved."

"I wasn't . . . I shouldn't have done it," Harry said, face flushing. The low light hid this, he assumed with relief. He sighed, feeling pained all over again. "I just couldn't believe you didn't trust me."

Tonks hesitated responding. Their fast pace brought them to the edge of the village where they stopped. Harry sat on the top rail of a stout gate that led to a fenced field, which had been left to grow waist-high, ungrazed. The last of the orange sunlight just brushed the tops of the dark green plants. Tonks sat on the other half of the gate and swung it back and forth.

"It's not that I don't trust you, it just hurts to think other women get to do things with you that I don't. Really, it's other women I don't trust. You're famous and everyone wants to be with you."

Harry puzzled that. "But that still means you must not trust me."

"Well . . . maybe, but I wasn't thinking of it that way."

Harry swung his side of the gate, making the hinge rumble. "I didn't mean to make you jealous. You're on duty all of the time. I'd take you out on the motorbike whenever you wanted . . ."

"Yeah," Tonks dully acknowledged. She sighed into the evening air. A breeze rustled the leaves of the trees and made the tall grass bow around their feet. "That's the way it goes every time," she said quietly. "I don't have enough time and they find someone else who does."

Harry frowned, feeling for her. "I'd like to think I wouldn't do that to you."

Still dull sounding, she said, "I'd like to think that too, but it always happens."

"I don't plan to have it happen. I understand why you're always busy." Harry wished he could confess his other powers to her, just to square things with his own conscience, but he held back. "Want to go for a ride right now?"

She smiled and laughed lightly. "I have a broomstick if I feel like flying around. It wasn't really the ride, per se." She sighed again. "Just that you weren't giving rides to someone cute and in need of rescue."

Harry stood as a car roared by, much too fast for the small road. He stepped over to Tonks, gave her a hand standing up, and immediately pulled her close. Lights came on in the house adjacent to the field. A door banged and young voices could be heard calling out playfully.

Tonks felt lithe within his arms against his front, but he knew her seemingly delicate body held magic sufficient for an Auror and skills a chameleon could only dream of. Harry said, "What I like about you is that you don't need rescue. The one time I tried to come rescue you, I needed to be rescued. I've learned my lesson about that."

Sounding professionally concerned, she said, "You don't remember what you did two days ago, between leaving me and going home?"

Harry shook his head and tightened his hold on her. "I had an odd dream." He laughed lightly at admitting that was possibly what had done him in.

"It didn't involve Voldemort, did it?"

"Well, yes," Harry reluctantly replied. "I think I was just reliving recent events. In the dream I was trying to save Severus from him. I don't think it means anything."

She huffed worrisomely. "I hope you're right that it's nothing. I don't like worrying something bad happened to you that you don't remember." Harry felt her paw around in her pocket suddenly and knew what that meant. He let her go. She used a Lumos to read the slate board. "I haveta run."

"Any chance you need me?" Harry had to ask.

It was her turn to laugh lightly. "I'll be certain to let you know if we do." Then she was gone.

Harry waited for a string of cars to roll by. They accelerated one by one out of the nearby turn. The village fell placidly quiet with their passing. Harry took a step towards home and stopped. That old familiar tingle of being watched had returned.

Harry bit his lip and glanced to each side, but saw nothing. "You again?" he asked aloud and with grave confidence that he was correct.

After a moment, a figure emerged from under a cloak and Alastor Moody was eyeing Harry with grudging appreciation. In the dim light, his scarred face had an unusual swarthiness and he moved with unusual speed as he approached.

"Where have you been?" Harry asked. "The Canaries?"

Moody snorted. "Somewhere no one would know me, so farther away than that." He hobbled faintly over to Harry. "Getting along all right without me, I see."

"Why wouldn't I be?" Harry asked, trying not to sound rude just yet.

Moody strode in a circle around Harry, footsteps crunching in the gravel. "You don't think you owe me?"

Harry crossed his arms, trying for haughty. "For what, pray tell?"

"You still think you managed a block with a borrowed wand good enough for an explosion that took out half a click of earth?"

Harry froze, remembering the panicked moments when Vineet struck the spelling vessels to destroy Merton's cohort, Svaha. "You were there?" Harry asked.

Moody snorted again.

"Well . . . thanks," Harry said, not ungrateful.

"I'd give you a two out of five for how you handled that situation with the Indian husband and wife team," Moody grumbled.

Harry rolled his eyes and noticed for the first time that Moody's footsteps sounded oddly even. He no longer wore a peg leg. "Whose leg did you steal?" Harry asked.

The footsteps stopped. "I did a few favors for a Vodou priest in Haiti and he arranged the leg in return." Moody stared down at his foot while lifting it for examination in the gathering twilight. "Don't know whose leg it was before . . ."

Harry stared at him and decided to change the subject. "So, are you going to be following me around again?" he demanded.

"Miss me, Potter?"


"I'll be around," Moody ambiguously replied. "I have other things to keep an eye on," he replied grimly. "Seems you've been behaving yourself. Keep it up and you'll see less of me."

Suspicious, Harry asked, "Know anything about a giant sea urchin?"

"Why, didya lose one?"

He did not sound to Harry as though he were deflecting the question dishonestly. "No. I was given one unexpectedly."

Moody strode away, saying over his shoulder before flipping his invisibility cloak back on, which made less difference in the gloom, "I never went in the water at the beach; I don't know anything about sea life."

Harry mostly believed him, although his trust in the man was limited. Harry found a parting insult on his tongue, but taunting the old Auror was not wise if he wanted to be left alone.

When he reached the house, Harry found the energy he had stoppered up to keep his calm around Moody now demanded release and doing his readings would not suffice to burn it up. Snape still sat at the dining room table across from Candide. Harry pleaded, "Would you do some drills with me?"

Snape asked, "You do not get enough practice at the Ministry?" But he stood directly after speaking. "Drills I can handle," he said to Harry's questioning face.

"Oh, good."

Candide strolled in while the furniture hovered a foot off the floor during its journey to the wall. Harry lowered his wand from moving the lamps to the corner, remembering the sagging balcony in his dream with a spasm of distress.

"What is the matter?" Snape asked.

Harry did not want to explain in front of Candide, so he shook his head and raised his wand for drilling.

They did several sequences of Hogwarts-level spells and Candide, losing interest in the repetition, wandered back to the dining room before Harry said, "I want to try something. Can you use a nastier curse like a . . . er, something that won't hurt too bad . . . "

"Something that won't hurt you too badly?" Snape asked, lowering his wand.

"No, you. How about a Sponge Knees?"

Harry held his wand at his side and waited. Despite appearing doubtful, Snape raised his wand. Harry felt the prickles from the curse as it generated, but he could not squash it like he had with Shacklebolt, and his knees went soft and he toppled to the floor.

"Drat!" Harry said, trying to push himself up, despite it being impossible to put his legs under himself.

Snape strode over and neutralized the curse. Harry got to his feet and untwisted his robes. "Huh, it didn't work."

"What did not work?"

"You remember that I . . . that when Goyle tried to use a Killing Curse on me, I was able to block it from forming and it exploded inside of him instead of casting. Well, that worked the other day again when Shacklebolt cursed me and I only had the Ministry wand and I could feel this awful curse coming. I crushed it back into the earth and it hit him instead."

Snape tapped his wand against his robes. "What was the curse?"

"An Imperious."

"You can feel any curse, correct? But you cannot block them all."

"Shacklebolt's felt worse than ordinary."

"Of course it did, it was an Unforgiveable."

Harry raised his chin to stare at him in surprise. "It only works with Unforgiveables you think? Can you try tossing one at me?"

Snape stared back at him. The wand in his hand had fallen still. "There is only one I can use on you." He turned and took a few steps away but it did not raise his wand. "Are you ready?" he asked.

Something intangible passed between them, an unspoken acknowledgment of trust. Harry relaxed, but said, "Cast it slowly so I have a chance to feel it."

Snape nodded and raised his wand. Harry felt the spell, odious and tainted, as it ballooned from the floor. He had lots of time to notice that black, sickly tendrils hovered at the periphery.

"Stop," Harry commanded. He could squash the magic, he was certain and did not want it to strike Snape, nor did he want him to attracting those things. The spell faded and the room returned to its normal vaguely cheery self. Thoughtfully, Harry said, "Those spells really are different. I thought they were Unforgivable because of the effect they had, but the source of energy they draw on is inherently evil."

Snape stepped closer, studying Harry as he considered this revelation. When Harry remained silent, Snape offered, "One can make most any ordinary spell into an evil one through creative use. Just as one can use a knife for chopping stewing vegetables or stabbing someone in the heart. Unforgivable Curses have always been considered distinct and perhaps you are able to sense precisely why."

Harry said, "You're opening a conduit to the Dark Plane when you use one of those spells. That would make you very vulnerable if you didn't know how to protect yourself."

"It makes you vulnerable even if you do believe you know how to protect yourself," Snape stated sternly.

Harry heard a parental correction in that. "I don't plan on making it a habit to use them, if that is what you mean."

"That is what I mean."

"They feel terrible," Harry said. "Sickly, rancid . . . I don't know how to describe it."

"Like death?" Snape suggested, with lightness used perhaps as a shield.

Harry shook his head and stashed his wand away. "No. Death is neutral." Harry remembered feeling Munz slip away as he asserted this. "This is something else. Something worse than death."

Snape dropped his voice. "One of the reasons I would much prefer if you left the Dark Plane alone."

Harry said, "Once you're there, it isn't so bad." To Snape's dubious brow, Harry explained, "It's as though the mixing of our world and the Plane is the actual trouble. Although the creatures there are not so pleasant; it's true. But they behave."

Snape shook his head but gave up the immediate debate.

- 888 -

The next day Harry came home from training and found Candide alone in the dining room. For once she did not have some kind of fabric, parchment, flower, or scent samples piled around her. Instead, a scrolled list of names bordered by Xs and naughts occupied her placesetting accompanied by a stack of open letters. Harry settled into answering his own post, only taking stock of Snape's absence when this was completed.

"Severus working on his brewing again?" Harry asked.

Candide nodded. Harry could not detect if she was growing dismayed or intolerant of this behavior. If she wasn't, then Snape had chosen remarkably wisely. His own troubles with Tonks solved, Harry felt quite good about things in general, even looking forward to meeting Candide's parents.

Owl claws grated on the glass before slipping inside the open window and over to Harry's hand. Harry recognized the Peterson owl and eagerly took the letter it held. He told the owl to wait, but it took off again without so much as hoot and Harry assumed that Elizabeth told it to return quickly so its absence could go unnoticed.

Harry read the letter, relieved that Elizabeth sounded upbeat about keeping out of her father's path and avoiding provoking him. She expressed gratitude for the wand and hoped that she had given Harry enough money for it. Harry's blood went from pleasantly warm flowing to painfully icy upon reading that femininely cursived sentence. He had not seen the money she had given him in several days.

Shaking slightly, Harry went through his robe pockets, once, twice and then more carefully a third time.

"What did you lose?" Candide asked after watching him do this.

"A bit of money," Harry said, distressed.

"Do you need more spending money?" she asked pointedly. "You don't have to go without anything. Severus told me you were used to doing that . . ."

Harry stood, thinking to check his other robes upstairs, even though he was quite certain he currently wore the robes he had on in Gringotts the other day. He mentally walked through rushing back to the Ministry after going to his vault, but he was certain he had left the money in his pocket. The only other memory he had of it was sliding it across a sticky pub table to the rather shabby Snape in his dream. Maybe a pickpocket had taken it, Harry thought, with queer hope, although he thought it unlikely given how much cheek that would require of someone.

Candide's concern ratcheted up as she asked, "Harry, what's the matter? Was it a great deal of money?"

"No," Harry said, trying to dismiss her worry, but failing. "It's more complicated." He considered interrupting Snape's brewing to tell him about this, but sat down instead, not wanting to run to him until his thoughts calmed. Sighing, he finished reading Elizabeth's letter without really taking it in.

Candide prompted him again, and Harry distracted her by asking about the invitation list she was working at. She huffed a laugh as though not wanting to let go so easily. She said, "It's going well. Looks like around seventy people." She considered Harry before asking, "Severus asked if you would be Superlatus Wizard, right?"

"No. What's that?"

"Hasn't got around to it yet, apparently." She shook her head as she rolled up the invitation list. "Muggles refer to it as 'best man'."

"I'd like to be that," Harry said.

"I'm positive he wants you to. Just doesn't want to ask." She absentmindedly straightened the sliced envelopes stacked beside her. "He's a tough nut to crack."

"You managed though," Harry said with no little compliment. Fixed in his minds eye was the image of the dreary and desperate Snape from his vision. The missing pounds made the disturbing vision clearer. The contrast alarmed him.

"It was more me who needed to change than him, I think," Candide said, pulling Harry back with her voice.

"I know what you mean," Harry said after a space. Brightening slightly, he went back to the previous topic, "I've never been to a wizard wedding before. What happens at them?"

She waved his question off, "All the same things as a Muggle one, I'm sure."

Harry thought about that. "I've never been to one of those, either."


Harry felt vaguely annoyed at her surprise. Without meaning to, his hand felt around in his pocket again, seeking the missing pounds. His empty pocket echoed in his worried gut. He stood and said, "I'm going to see how Severus is doing."

Harry rapped softly on the spare room door, responded that it was just him when asked, and entered when told he could. Inside, the room had been rearranged. Fewer tubes bubbled and on the upturned door rested a row of black rocks with holes drilled in the top. Snape worked over one of these, dripping what appeared to be mercury into one of them as a spell hovered it in a tilted spinning orbit as though to coat the inside evenly. Harry took a seat on a stool well out of the way of the hiss of noxious steam and the scent of baking rock.

Hands clenched between his knees to hold tight the ungraspable, Harry watched Snape work, alarmed by the notion that somehow his dream had left behind yet more material proof of its reality. A yawning gap separated him from the will to speak his suspicions, since like a spell, speaking threatened to make them real.

Snape glanced at Harry, then away, and then sharply back again. "What is the trouble?" he asked.

Harry realized that he had been sitting there waiting to be prompted, childishly perhaps. "Er, the money I had in my pocket the other day . . . it's gone." Snape waited for more, so Harry added, "I remember giving it away in my dream . . . to you . . . and now it's gone. It was the pounds Elizabeth gave me for her wand. I had them in my pocket," he repeated, avoiding feeling around said with his hands for a fifth time.

Snape's gaze grew vaguely disturbed. Harry said, "I'd rather be prophetic than have my nightmares become reality. What if everything becomes a dream? How would I know what's real?"

Snape spoke lowly, "Tell me not in mournful numbers life is but an empty dream. For the soul is dead that slumbers and things are not what they seem . . ."

"What's that?" Harry asked in alarm.

"A nineteenth century American wizard named Longfellow said that." Snape carefully placed the vial of mercury he held back in one of several crowded racks and crossed his arms. "You are not the first to worry about such things."

Harry's brow furrowed, unappeased. Snape plucked up a pointed chunk of uneven silvery metal between metal pinchers and held it over a flame. White snow flaked off as it burned and he collected it with a tin plate as it fluttered downward.

"What are you working on?" Harry asked, vaguely aggrieved.

"It is almost finished. You will see soon enough." Snape smiled faintly then. "I have succeeded though." He stated this with unusual lightness, which shook Harry out of his own worries.

"Succeeded at what?" Harry asked, peering at the mysterious porous rocks, some broken open, some wrapped tightly with metal wire, as if reinforced to keep them from exploding.

"You will see," Snape said, sounding distant.

Harry frowned. Now that he had unburdened himself he wanted more concern but by some infinitesimally small chance, had caught Snape in a buoyant mood. Snape placed the tin saucer on the stained door and waved the flame away with his wand before facing Harry again. "Suffice to say, you are not living a dream at this moment. Or we are all suffering one together if you are, but I cannot believe that true."

As unnaturally philosophical as that was coming from Snape, Harry resisted it and stated, "I'd rather be prophetic. I like things the way they are. I don't want them to change."

Snape's smiled faintly, but purely, again. "Satisfying to hear you say that." Stepping closer with a challenging swish of his robes, he asked, "Truly nothing you would change?"

Harry thought over the imminent wedding, for which Candide's broad concern well-covered any needed from him or Snape. He thought of his unclear notion of an infant in the house. Even the dreaded dinner with the new in-laws felt dutifully acceptable. The past, however, still held stabs of regret. "I can't change the past," Harry admitted. "Everything else is good."

Snape made the unusual gesture of resting a hand on Harry's shoulder. It had the opposite effect from what was probably intended. It made it hard for Harry to take a breath. "What if I destroy all this. Without trying?"

Thoughtfully, Snape replied evenly, "Give us some credit, Harry. You are not the only one with power in this household." He fixed Harry with a level, unflinching gaze before releasing him and returning to his zinc and mercury.

- 888 -

The sky above Diagon Alley glared down with an unusually jewel-like blue as Harry walked toward Madam Malkin's. In his hand swung a sack containing his dress robes, still un-repaired after their last altercation with a public event. Even if they were serviceable, Harry thought them too formal for dinner at home and he had nothing besides his ordinary robes, which always seemed more worn than he remembered once he took a close look at them.

The shop was stifling in the heat, oppressive with new fabric scents. Even the bell chime on the door jangled mutedly in the robe-packed shop. Harry searched through a likely rack while the shopkeeper assisted someone else. Solid, bold colors dominated the robes in his size. Harry would have insisted before stepping in the store that he did not care what color robes he wore, but faced with saturated maroon and orange-brown, he realized differently.

The young shopkeeper bound over upon spotting him, pigtails bobbing along with her. "Can I help you find something?" she brightly asked.

Harry scratched his head. "Do you have anything in black?"

"What kind of event?"

Something about the way the scritching of hangers on metal across the shop stopped suddenly upon Harry's speaking, made him hold back on particulars. "Just a family dinner," he said, shrugging. He held out the sack with his damaged robes. "These need repair. And I need the robes for tonight."

She took the sack without peering into it and hovered it over her shoulder to the counter behind her. "Well, we have some greys . . ."

Harry tried to focus on the myriad robes held out for his inspection, but he could not keep his awareness away from the way the other customer happened to always remain out of sight when they moved about the shop.

The shopkeeper's voice was losing its perkiness without yet growing impatient as she held up a grey robe with light green decorative stitching. "The stitching would highlight your eyes . . ." she said in a practiced tone.

"I like that one," Harry said, dropping his shoulderbag to try them on.

Even before he had them pulled all the way over his head so he could see, she was leading him to the mirror. Harry tripped on the raised dais where he was supposed to stand for the fitting before stepping up onto it. He tugged the robes straight, while the shopclerk adjusted a curved, wall-mounted mirror to reflect the outside brightness on him. Harry had to agree that the light-colored stitching brought out his eyes. As he stared at his reflection, he wondered with a skip of his heart if his eyes had not become lighter still.

The shopkeeper prodded for a verdict, so he gave the robes a look. The spare and tasteful stitching evoked the right level of formality, he thought, without being stodgy. "They're good."

"Arms up, then," she ordered. "I need to pin them now for taking in if you want them tonight."

Harry held his arms out to the sides and waited while a tick tick sound emanated from taps of her wand along the side seams. The needles stiffened the fabric and pricked menacingly.

"So, important event?" the shopkeeper asked chattily.

"Just a family dinner," Harry said, squashing the urge to complain a bit about his new in-laws.

"That's all, really?" a new voice suggestively asked. Rita Skeeter, the source of the voice, slipped into view behind a tower of pastel pointed hats festooned with flowered ribbons.

Harry stiffened but sharp needlepoints bristled at him through his clothes, so he held still, arms tiring so that they drooped. "Almost finished?" Harry asked.

The shopkeeper was crouched, undoing the hem. "No, needs to be lengthened," she mumbled around the needles held between her lips. Harry sighed and held his arms up again. This at least removed the threat from the metal points in his armpits.

Skeeter slipped her notebook out of her handbag and after stopping to examine her red nails flipped it open. "Come on, Harry, if you give me something of value, I'll go away and leave you alone. If you make me dig, you don't know what I might uncover."

Harry had no desire to help her. "Go ahead and dig, then."

She pondered him and scratched something down with a quill made of a feather the same blood red as her nails. The scratching aggravated Harry who wanted to know what she was writing. As though filling him in, she said, "Grey is such an appropriate color for you, isn't it?" With a glance up at Harry's fixed form, she returned to writing, commenting, "Those eyes of yours are heading for diamond, aren't they? Green must be out this year."

Harry weakly bit at his top lip wondering what magic he had done now to further that. Other related worries about his powers tumbled out behind that thought as though loosed from a gate. The shopkeeper was halfway around the hem with her pinning.

Skeeter pondered aloud, "There is a major family event coming up for you, I hear. I sadly did not receive an invitation. I do so love weddings. So what could be this evening that would make the most famous of wizards have to rush out for a new robe?"

Harry's stomach flipped at the notion of seeing his extended family issues spread out for all to see in the newspaper, right before the big event, which promised to be sufficiently complicated on its own. Bolstering himself with a dark look, that at least put a halt to her incessant scratching, Harry asked, "Why do you want me as an enemy?"

The question appeared to catch her off guard. Her nails were due again already for further inspection. She did this while saying, "Leaving aside that you are more profitable as an enemy, I personally don't buy the innocent routine. You spread it especially thick."

Harry's leaden arms had tilted lower again, garnering a rebuke from the shopkeeper. He sighed and raised his arms straight again, finding strength in the notion that she was almost finished. Pins glittered in a circle around his feet, brighter than the light green thread of the pattern along the hem.

"So your plan is to annoy me until I prove myself dark enough that it is safe only to leave me alone?" Harry asked Skeeter.

She closed her notebook and said soberly, "Oh, you've probably already done that." She turned while stashing her notebook away, and stepped out of the shop. The door squeaked closed with a jangle of the bell and the shopkeeper announced, "Done."

Harry dropped his arms in relief and got poked in the side for it. He had to raise his arms all the way up to have the robes safely hovered off him. She hung them on a rusty pipe behind the counter suspended from the ceiling by an even rustier chain. "I'll have them in an hour." She handed him a slip.

"That's fast."

She leaned forward and with a hand beside her mouth said, "My brother bought an elf so our mum could have nights off. He's really fast, the elf is, even if he doesn't speak much English, and not a stitch out of place." She waved at the otherwise empty pipe. "See, nothing waiting. We're going to go custom next month: bespoke robes while you wait and everything. That's why Rita was in here, to write an article." She accepted Harry's Galleons and gave him change, still chattering. "You should have told her all about your plans. She'd lap it up and then all your friends would get to read all about it. We were thrilled when she agreed to come do a piece on us."

"Yeah, I'm sure," Harry muttered.

Outside on the alley, the conversation with Skeeter still circled in Harry's mind as his eyes checked to make sure she was not around, in obvious human form. He was just considering heading home and coming back to fetch the robes rather than dragging Ron out of work early to keep him company when another voice stopped him short.

"Hello, Harry," Belinda said, appearing chipper in the fine weather, which startled him into uttering something unintelligible in response. "Would you do me a favor?" she asked.

He was so pleased to see her happier that he instantly said he would. She led the way down the Alley, explaining how the Minister needed a special, certain liquor for a visiting dignitary and the only shop that carried it was on Knockturn Alley and she hoped he would keep her company because it was more crowded that day than usual. Harry thought crowded better than empty from a safety perspective, but he agreed, knowing it would give him a chance to talk to her.

Her light footsteps floated her along Diagon Alley, Harry beside, until they reached the turn. Harry asked her how the Minister's office was treating her; the best small talk he could come up with in a hurry. She shrugged and gave a version of her standard answer about working too late every evening, but it being worth it.

They ducked together under the crooked bay window that blocked part of the narrow entrance to the less-than-savory side alley to Diagon. The sun here fell on dusty wide-brimmed hats pulled low and hoods pulled far forward, leaving features in inky shadow. The scent of old smoke and bromide leached from the age-darkened walls. A group of witches slid aside grudgingly to let Harry and Belinda pass. The witches hum of conversation fell still, eyes tracking even though heads barely moved.

Harry fell silent too, needing to concentrate on watching the denizens of Knockturn observing them in return. Belinda continued to talk, until Harry said, "I'm glad to see you so upbeat."

Oddly, this set her lips into a purse and Harry regretted speaking. They neared the end of the alley. Cracked and aged signs hung lower here outside the shop doors, varnish darkened, obscuring the print. Belinda stopped before a newly painted sign depicting a curly eye surrounded by the words Cellar ObscurI.

Belinda pulled open the door, revealing not a shop but a long wooden staircase curving downward. A small lamp hinted at a landing somewhere in the depth. Harry stared down at the tiny light until his eyes adjusted and then around at the hunched and gritty old wizards and witches loitering near this end of the alley, slitted eyes slipping over to fix on him. A sharp glare at the closest renewed their walking.

The stairway appeared far more like a trap than a place of business, even if Harry's curse sense gave him only the usual distress of Knockturn Alley in general.

"How long will it take to buy the bottle?" Harry asked, torn between stepping into a trap and letting her step into one alone.

But her concerns had evaporated now that they had reached the shop. "Oh, just two minutes or so."

"If you aren't out in five, I'll come in after you," Harry stated, hand checking for his wand, obediently in his pocket where it was supposed to be.

Belinda laughed, believing he was joking, apparently. She slipped quickly down the steps while Harry held the door open to give her more light. After she had made the turn out of sight, Harry scanned around him and backed up to the far wall where he could keep watch on the whole alley and the shop. He noted the time on his watch and stood, waiting.

Hunched shoppers shuffled by, tattered robes dragging. Shop doors here did not have chimes but low foghorns, or even screams. Harry waited, thinking time must have run out, but a check of his watch repeatedly told otherwise.

When Belinda slipped out the shop door, sack-wrapped package tucked under her arm, Harry felt a bit silly about his worry.

"Thanks for waiting. Minister gives me these errands and its nice to have company."

"Where's Percy?" Harry asked. Forethought told him not to, but curiosity overruled.

"He wasn't around today. So I couldn't ask him to come with me," she added. "Normally, he would," she then added in a tone of defense.

Harry did not like Percy, but he did not want Belinda back. Sandwiched between those two zones, he could not find anything to say.

Belinda glanced at her own pocketwatch. "I'll Apparate back from here, if you don't mind. I hate to break the incoming rule, since our office wrote it, but we have no plans to regulate outgoing."

Harry barely nodded before she had gone with a last, "Thanks again." He stared momentarily at the shop door and the brand new sign. He turned to go and was run into by someone walking quickly and not watching where they were going.

Harry disentangled himself and said, "Candide?" in surprise at recognizing the person he helped right.

Flustered, she blurted, "Harry!" Then covered her mouth and said, "Oops, was I not supposed to give you away? Or, you're not in disguise are you?"

This all came flowing out so quickly, Harry needed a second to catch up. By the time, he did, she was tugging on his sleeve and moving down the alley.

"No, it's all right. What are you doing here?" Harry asked. Even with her head bowed, he could see her flush. On the return trip out, the alley's occupants moved aside more deliberately, eyeing Harry's companion and him alternately. Harry sent sharp Auror-eyed looks back. A particularly pointy-bearded, tall wizard standing in front of Best's Beastiary Provision seemed amused by this.

"I shouldn't have, I know, The boss was gone, so I slipped out," Candide said, sounding guilty. She took his arm in a tighter grip and whispered excitedly, "But I know what I'm having now."

Not understanding, Harry said, "What?"

"I went and asked Grisley--you know the old augerer--what I was having; you know a girl or a boy."

"Oh," Harry said. They were passing through the narrows leading to Diagon. Harry ducked so Candide would not have to. "So, what did she say?" he asked, suddenly intensely curious and jarringly on hold until he heard the answer.

"It's a boy, she said," Candide recounted.

They stopped in the intersection of the two alleys, shoppers veered around them, packages rustling.

"That's excellent," Harry said, not sure what difference it really made, except that just knowing made a kind of major difference. He stared beyond her hair down Knockturn Alley and the robed figures skulking about there. "I'd not mind seeing Severus' reaction if you could hold off on telling him till I was there."

She smiled. "I'd like you to be there when I tell him, of course. But I have to get back to work for a bit, just in case the boss comes back." She moved off in a hurry after patting Harry on the arm.

Harry watched her negotiate the crowds to reach the door leading up to the accounting office. It swung closed and Harry felt strangely disconnected and unsure why that would be the case. The evening held the promise of even more interesting encounters and he now felt vague dread about it, even as he felt more determined to make things work with Snape and his new in-laws.

Shaking himself as a group of children passed, one of them turning back to wave excitedly at him, face aglow with recognition, Harry Disapparated for home.

Next: Chapter 8

Snape harmlessly crushed the bundle together and slipped it under his arm. "Yes. Minerva kindly reassigning my teaching and even Head of House duties, but failed, suspiciously enough, to find another deputy. His words came out clipped, having wrapped himself in disdain already in preparation for the dinner, Harry figured. Candide minced over while this conversation went on and Snape took wary stock of the two of them. "What is it?" Snape asked, put on alert by what must have been the pensiveness they exuded over Candide's news.

"I, uh, went to see Grisley Teaberg today . . ." Candide opened.

"Why? No, don't tell me," he added quickly holding up his hand. "You fetched a beauty potion for your cousin . . . an excellent plan," he asserted, turning to stride away.

Author's Notes
The delay was due to my travelling around too much to write. If you follow my author link to my lj blog you can track what the heck is distracting me. It takes a lot to distract me from writing, but lately life has managed.

Also, the misnaming of the village is intentional. Spinning is what one does to generate one story, but with this story I'm making a metaphor for fanfiction, and the multitude of stories that make it up, hence a weaving. Plus timelines are now seriously off from canon, so I can only peg it as close as I can to the books and the renaming is also an acknowledgment of that.

Chapter 8: Trials
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Chapter 8 — Trials

Grey robes just brushed the stone floor as they should, perfectly tailored. Harry gave himself one last check in the mirror inside the wardrobe door and shut it, consciously neatening the room despite not expecting the visiting in-laws to look into it.

Downstairs, Candide moved frantically about, straightening fresh candles in the tallest ornate holders on the dining room table, adjusting the silver and the napkins. She turned to Harry with the attitude that he was next in line for inspection.

She stopped. "You look good. New robes?"


Sounding doubtful it could be true, she asked, "Did you pick those out yourself?"

Harry grinned in the face of the implied insult. "Yes, I did manage to pick them out myself."

She pushed her styled and extra wavy hair around. Harry figured the comment had its genesis in stress, so he said: "It's all right. Really, the shop clerk suggested them."

Candide glanced at the simple little clock up on the shelf that had been moved from her flat. It was merely a varnished block of wood with four brass ticks in the cardinal positions. "Why did Severus have to go to Hogwarts today of all days?" she asked, peeved.

Harry assumed Snape was continuing to stay out of the way. "I'm certain he'll return soon." Candide crossed her arms, eyes fixed on the clock, frown still apparent. Harry went on, "I think it will go all right tonight."

She patted Harry's arm and burst back into preparatory motion, this time re-attacking the main hall.

Snape arrived shortly after, pre-occupied as he wandered into the hall, reading from a bundle of pale, animal-hide scrolls with bright red and purple tassels. By standing on tip toe to get a glance, Harry decided they must be school board decrees. "That time again," Harry said.

Snape harmlessly crushed the bundle together and slipped it under his arm. "Yes. Minerva for the moment kindly reassigned my preparatory teaching and even Head of House duties, but failed, suspiciously enough, to find another deputy. His words came out clipped, having wrapped himself in disdain already for dinner, Harry figured. Candide minced over while this conversation went on and Snape took wary stock of the two of them. "What is it?" Snape asked, put on alert by what must have been the pensiveness they exuded over Candide's news.

"I, uh, went to see Grisley Teaberg today . . ." Candide opened.

"Why? No, don't tell me," he added quickly holding up his hand. "You fetched a beauty potion for your cousin . . . an excellent plan," he asserted, turning to stride away.

Harry swallowed a grin, but Candide propped her fists on her hips, eyes narrowing. "That's hardly what I did." Snape made a bored turn back to them, leading with his toes. Candide said, "I had her divine whether we're having a boy or girl."

Snape's carefully built dismissive wall appeared to hollow out, even though he did not actually move. "And?" he finally asked.

Candide made as if to speak, but then crossed her arms and, perhaps in retaliation for his crack about her cousin, tauntingly said, "Which do you think she said, boy or girl?"

Snape considered for just a second before replying, "As long as she didn't say 'neither' it doesn't much matter."

"Or one of each," Harry contributed, enjoying this game.

This drew Snape's increasingly undone gaze to him. "She did not say 'one of each,' did she?"

Harry laughed, unable to leave him hanging vulnerable like that for long. "No."

The movement of Snape's shoulders gave away real relief. "Well, which is it then?"

Candide relented. "A boy."

Unmoving, Snape took that in. "Ah." Harry watched him fail to react, outwardly anyhow. He turned slowly to look at the tall clock. "I best get ready," he said. He stepped away and this time Candide moved as though to catch up and grab hold. Harry, without thinking, took hold of her as she passed. A dispute felt imminent and it could not be a worse time for it.

When the door clicked closed upstairs, Harry released her. Eyes watery and fiery, she demanded quietly, "What's the matter with him?"

Harry felt around inside his head for something to say, certain he lacked the skill to sooth her but having no choice but to try. He hesitated simply telling her to leave it for later, because even if that did not backfire, it would poison the evening. "Severus didn't have a very happy childhood," Harry said, sort of to stall but understanding opened before him as he said it. "Maybe he's afraid it isn't going to be any different this time around."

Candide lost her battle-ready posture and asked, "Do you think he'd have preferred a girl?"

Seeing as it was a done thing, Harry preferred not to conjecture on that but he had to answer the question. "That might not have reminded him so much, possibly. But it'll be all right," Harry insisted. "Give him some time to get used to the idea."

She sighed loudly, which under any other circumstances would have concerned him. In this case it was the sound of giving in, at least for the moment.

"I thought he'd be happy," she said.

Harry thought that a strong word for Snape under any circumstance. Trying to lighten things, he said, "Not that he'd let anyone know if he was . . ."

She ducked her head for a grin that was half grimace. With another sigh, she patted his arm and said, "I don't think this would work without you."

Harry would rather like to think it would, but he could see her viewpoint. "Your parents will be here soon. Is everything ready?"

This properly distracted her utterly. She strode in a circle around the carefully arranged hall, even leaning back to scrutinize the chandelier, composed entirely of fresh candles, all glowing merrily. "I think we're ready," she said, sounding fatalistic.

Harry pondered the notion of bringing someone home for the two of them to scrutinize with thoughts of marriage. His initial instinct that they would be more forgiving and open than Candide's parents gave way to a more pessimistic vision of them asking awkward and pointed questions. These considerations made Harry more nervous for that evening.

Snape returned, taciturn and faintly glowering. They all sat down on the couches—Snape with a tumbler of something amber—and waited. When the knock came on the door and Harry stood, Snape arrested him with a sharply raised hand. "I instructed the elf to take care of the butlering."

A small pop indicated Winky had indeed gone to the door. The three of them stood as cloaks were shed in the narrow, dim entry hall. Three figures shuffled into the main hall and Harry was grateful to see Ruthie leading the way, knowing smile firmly in place on her substantial face. Candide's parents followed, trailing farther behind as the room widened out. Her father was a man going toward portly, but did not move like one as far along as he actually was. Her mother's greying hair was swept back in a style similar to Candide's but the grey streaks left one with the impression of a badger. This was reinforced by her distasteful expression as she took in the old house and its patchwork of recent repairs.

Harry fought a defensive acid rising in his chest and stepped forward with a friendly smile to follow behind the others' greetings.

"And Harry," Candide said, making introductions. "My mum and dad, Adalais Martyn and Farnsworth Breakstone, and of course you've met my sister."

Attitudes shifted instantly and Harry's hand was pumped excessively by Candide's father. "A pleasure, Mr. Potter, absolutely smashing to get to meet you . . ." He went on in this vein until realizing abruptly that he should stop. This was followed by a peck on the cheek by Adalais. Thus reassured that he could influence their opinions, Harry relaxed and took the liberty of suggesting they sit down and that Winky should fetch them drinks.

Harry taking charge eased the atmosphere until they were settled in and no good topics of conversation caught hold. Ruthie rescued them, by leaning her broadly round shoulders forward and asking Harry, "So, what is it like to be an Auror? Exciting I bet."

"Yes and no. We spend a lot of boring hours on patrol or stake-out between bouts of excitement."

No one joined in, certainly not the poker-stiff Adalais or slumping Farnsworth, so Ruthie said, "The papers have been covering the upcoming vampire trial. What do you think about the expensive solicitor Fueago hired?"

Harry knew nothing beyond that he would be pulled out of training for his testimony. Before he could explain this, Snape intervened with, "Harry prefers to remain ignorant of what gets printed about him."

Ruthie jerked in surprise. "Really. I'd love reading about myself . . . even bad things. Those would be the best fun." She laughed heartily and peered at Harry with amusement.

Harry could not judge if she was joking. The attempts at conversation were mercifully cut short by Winky, gold edged tea-towel glittering in the excessive candlelight of the chandelier, summoning them to dinner. As they made their way to the dining room, he overheard Adalais muttered something grudging about how nice it must be to have a house-elf to take care of everything.

Dinner slid by at a snail's pace with nearly all comments directed at Harry, who did not mind at first, but by the time the roast was cut into for second helpings he began to think more progress towards their accepting Snape would be more valuable. When a ripe opportunity presented itself in the form of Candide insisting to her mother that she had survived any bouts of morning sickness with a good potion, Harry jumped in. He said, "Severus is an expert brewer."

Candide's father wiped his mouth, folded his napkin and said, "You used to teach that, Candy tells us. I'd expect you to get good at it if you were teaching it." He sniffed, heavy cheeks shifting in layers as he considered the row of them across the table. "You teach Defense Against the Darker Arts now, correct?" His tone implied less small talk and more ground-work-laying. Harry began to see this not leading anywhere good and indeed, his instincts were correct. The man said, "You teach that from experience too, I suppose?"

"Of course," Snape answered easily, uncaringly, which unclenched Harry's chest. "I wouldn't be very good at it if I did not teach from experience. It is a serious and necessary subject, sadly neglected in the past as Harry can attest."

Harry took up this opening with the first thing he could think of. "That's true. It's so important now that Hogwarts has two professors on the subject, sharing the load."

Farnsworth straightened his silverware and said, "There was some controversy about that too in the papers this week, something about keeping a werewolf on around all those children. Or am I mis-remembering?"

Snape calmly refilled his own glass of wine. "No, that's correct, but he's rendered relatively harmless by regular potioning before and during the full moon."

"Well that's something anyhow," Farnsworth conceded without changing his challenging tone.

To Harry it seemed the strained discussion about Lupin and Hogwarts was actually a substitute for something else, a different topic or perhaps a duel.

Farnsworth went on while Adalais ate heartily, content with her husband's handling of things. Ruthie, the more likely candidate to eat while food was plentiful, had had the same potato poised on her fork for the last minute.

"Just doesn't seem worth the risk, does it? If I had a son or daughter there still, I couldn't possible approve it," Candide's father said and his wife nodded broadly in agreement. "I can't imagine allowing a dangerous creature like that around children. He could spread that evil easily, couldn't he?"

Harry cut Snape's reply off with, "He isn't a creature; he's a very kind man." He managed to pull his voice back from angry into the realm of calmly informative by the end, but his heart rate rose in response.

Snape did something unexpected; he reached beside him and gently laid a hand over Harry's arm, where it rested beside his knife, as if to silence him. Snape went on, the very model of control. "You have to forgive my adopted son, he is passionate at defending those he cares about."

Harry watched Farnsworth's eyes cautiously move back and forth between the two of them and realized that Snape's gentle assertion was actually a threat, and Harry had to slow his breathing to avoid giving away that he had grasped that. Ruthie's brows were at her hairline. She puckered her lips and ate her potato, which was the cue for the conversation to move to something else.

Things remained superficially congenial until the sherry was poured by Winky after the pudding plates glittered away. Winky bowed herself out with a quick backward shuffle clearly desiring to leave. Farnsworth, while peering through the dark red liquid in his glass at the nearest candle, said, "If we had a say in this, we'd put a stop to it."

Oddly, Harry felt relief upon hearing this, despite its bluntness. Snape swirled his own carefully observed sherry and did not reply. Candide colored but also held back. Harry suspected she had heard that at least once before.

Ruthie, finishing off her tumbler, said, "Good thing you can't then."

Farnsworth ignored her and accused Snape: "Figures someone with a background like yours would use the most despicable, old-fashioned form of coercion. Doesn't it?"

The tightening of the cords on the back of Snape's hand was the only outward sign of his self-control. He brushed the fingertips of his left hand over each other as he answered, "On that point you are grossly mistaken."

Adalais snorted faintly, prompting Candide to say with a blush clear even in the candlelight, "I'm certain I explained this, Mother."

Farnsworth did not remove his eyes from Snape. "Like I'd believe the likes of you," he said in a low voice perhaps propelled and bolstered by alcohol.

Harry would have spoken, but Snape's fingers brushed his forearm again before he could compose something. It was torture to sit quietly.

"Mother," Candide chastised, perhaps expecting an ally in this.

"Well, Dear," Adalais said in a voice pitched higher than normal, "We always expected you to do better than this—you of all people." Adalais glanced at Snape dismissively and straightened her crushed napkin back over her lap. "I mean, really, Dear," she added, flustered.

Candide dabbed quickly at one eye and bit her lip. Harry was ready to burst. Snape had tapped him yet again as though sensing this. Harry, taking his anger out on his guardian because it was the only direction allowed, asked, "Why don't you want me to say anything?"

"I simply don't," Snape said calmly. "You have already lost your temper."

"Oh, no I haven't," Harry countered, just barely in check. "I wouldn't be sitting here like this if I had, would I? I don't like sitting here quietly while the only family I've even known is roundly insulted."

Candide's parents stared at him. Harry tried to find another ounce of calm to apply to his nerves and he must have managed because he backed down, but assumed it was clear to others that he was struggling.

Ruthie piped up, "Well, like you said, 'nothing you can do about it'."

Farnsworth's face twisted as though the sherry beneath his nose had grown foul. "She's old enough to do as she pleases, but that still doesn't make it easy to turn her over to a supporter, former or not, of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. We read all the papers; have for years; years and years; we know what you are, even if she downplays it." He nodded in Candide's direction.

"Voldemort," Snape said just as Harry had opened his mouth to do so. "His name is Voldemort."

Candide's parents cringed and Ruthie had to hide a grin behind pretending to drink from her empty tumbler.

Adalais resumed addressing the daughter across from her. "People don't ever cease to be dark wizards, Candy-dear," she stated as fact. "Imagine if you told us you wanted to marry a . . . a vampire. Wouldn't you expect us to dissuade you?"

Candide, eyes bright, did not reply. She looked away, at the empty grate, char-coated and cold.

Silence reigned until Snape set down his empty tumbler and said, "Perhaps if we have run out of things people wish to get out in the open, we should declare this an evening."

Farnsworth tossed his napkin onto the table. "There's no legal recourse for us; I already checked. Even asked a solicitor for help requesting a dispensation directly from the Wizengamot."

Snape followed this immediately with, "But in the hearing you would be up against Harry Potter and I suspect that put an end to the idea." He smiled for the first time, but it did not reach his eyes.

"Daddy, you didn't," Candide complained and then huffed in annoyance.

Harry wondered if her father had considered going to the papers. Skeeter would certainly provide a willing ear. Harry did not ask about this, just in case.

Farnsworth said, "I can't in good conscience give you away."

Snape said, "Someone else will be happy to do so," at the exact same time Candide asked, "But you'll still come, right?"

"I insisted we go," Adalais said. "Wouldn't be proper to not go at all."

This finally was the last comment of any substance that evening. When the door finally closed and the three of them were standing alone in the hall, Harry said, "That could have gone worse, I suppose." Snape turned on his heel to face him. He was still calm, which Harry had to comment on. "You did well," Harry told him.

Dryly, he said, "With due respect to Candide, I decided they truly do not matter." Candide's gaze was fixed to the floor and it remained there until Snape said to her, "I do hope that's the end of it."

Candide nodded. Harry gave her a weak smile when she looked his way. "Thanks for trying Harry," she said.

To her he shrugged. To Snape Harry said, "Sorry I talked out of turn."

"Oh, do not apologize. I wished you to."

Harry lowered his brow and stared at him. "You were manipulating me?"

"I wished you to express your thoughts in a context that made it absolutely clear you spoke of your own will, which you did. It was useful that you are so predictable, but I must point out that you should work to eliminate such a bad habit that makes it easy for your enemies to entrap you."

"I can try," Harry said doubtfully. He huffed and said, "I have readings to do," before he strode up the stairs, intending to take Kali out of her cage, settle in with his books, and willfully ignore the realization that even when he tried to use his influence, he could not succeed at it properly.

An owl from Hermione distracted Harry from sorting through his books. The bird carried an invitation to a small luncheon she was having at the Leaky Cauldron before leaving for Hogwarts. Harry pulled out his small diary and made a note of it. At the bottom of the printed invitation she had added:

Harry, I should probably warn you that I invited Vishnu as well. We've owled on occasion, but I haven't seen him since your birthday and found I really have to or I might lose my mind. It should be safe enough since I'm leaving for ten months.

Harry tossed the invitation into the cold hearth to burn later, thinking Hermione may not want anyone seeing that note. He frowned, feeling for his friend and wondering how things were with his fellow. Harry should have found or created an opportunity to speak with him, but feeling partly responsible for his marriage difficulties made it even more awkward. Maybe he'd have a chance during the luncheon, or maybe that would be completely the wrong time to bring anything up.

- 888 -

Saturday, Harry took his bike out again, this time to meet Tonks, whom he had arranged to meet for dinner in Hogsmeade. Harry flew to the wizarding village, which gave him a rare chance to mull over things. The helmet, when he had to wear it until clear of Muggle habitation, rubbed painfully against the bump on his head, reminding him of the mystery of how he had ended up with it. He had flashes of crawling toward the warmth of the fire, but not exactly how he had become so cold in the first place. Also a mystery that dragged on his mind was why Belinda had been back, mostly, to her outgoing self when he had seen her on Diagon Alley.

This second mystery still gnawed at Harry's consciousness as he landed with a musical clang! of metal on the narrow road before the Three Broomsticks. Shoppers turned to stare at him before giggling and going on their way. The great chrome machinery of Sirius' motorbike did stand out in the age-tainted, wooden surroundings of the wizarding village.

Tonks stepped out of the pub and propped a hand on her skirted hip. "That explains why you wanted to meet here," she said, giving him a peck. Her hair stood tall and lemon yellow today.

Harry rolled the bike out of the way into the alley and tugged her farther between the buildings using the bike as a barrier to hug her properly. "Glad you could get away today," Harry said. He felt eyes upon them and pulled away with a glance at the empty light behind the buildings. He fought a temptation to send a curse that direction.

Inside, the two of them settled over mugs of butterbeer. Harry, wanting help working things out said, "Oddest thing. Belinda was nice to me the other day."

Tonks' dismay was most likely exaggerated, making Harry grin. "Sorry," he said. "It's just that something has been up with her."

"Harry, is there a witch in England you aren't trying to come to the aid of."

"Don't be silly," Harry said, trying not to laugh. "Not all of them. Just the ones exposed to the hazard that is Harry."

Tonks tipped her mug at him, slopping some onto the table where it smoked a bit as it mixed with the other stains on the wood. "I'll grant you that one."

"You don't have to be jealous. I prefer my dates to not need rescuing. Really."

She smiled with her eyes and Harry accepted that she believed him. Her eyes rolled though, when he said, "But about Belinda . . ."

"How about some other topic . . . how are the wedding plans going?"

"Oh, please," Harry groaned. "Some other topic."

A group of hags shuffled in, the mustiness of their robes making some customers sneeze. Madam Rosmerta stalked over. "The Hog's Head serves fare more to your liking I expect," she said to them. The five of them ignored her and with much loud adjusting of chairs, made themselves at home.

Tonks took everyone in with a practiced eye before turning back to Harry. "I hope things aren't going badly."

"Well, the in-laws could be happier . . ."

"They always could be happier."

"But I'm just tired of all the discussion about dress colors and flower selection and music and . . . ugh."

She laughed. "Blokes don't go in for that; it's true."

"And Severus is up to something. Won't say what it is."

Tonks finished her butterbeer in record time and stood to get another. "That sounds like him." She returned seconds later with a fresh drink, this time sitting back more relaxed. "You have to get to know him by guessing correctly," she asserted. "But you would know that. How's he coping with having one on the way?"

"I haven't asked him," Harry said. A group of youngsters flew by out on the street dressed all in the same color robes as though on their way to use the school Quidditch pitch.

"I'd be dying to ask him," Tonks said. "Just see his reaction. Imagine a junior Severus. Or juniorette."

"Junior," Harry said.

"It is now?" she asked, grinning. "Seeing himself grow up again. That will be a change for him. Most blokes love that part of it, but I don't know about him."

Something about the hunched hags in the window made Harry remember the other Snape, the ragged, beaten down Snape. To distract himself, he said, "I've never met your parents."

"Eh," she said, waving her hands weakly. After a pause she said, "If you really want to, we could all go out for dinner some night."

"I think I'd like that. Is there some reason you wouldn't want to?" Harry had to ask.

Tonks shrugged and glanced into her mug.

"What is it?" Harry asked.

Tonks shrugged again. "No, we can go out. Pick a date."

"Maybe after the wedding," Harry said. "You're coming to the wedding, right?"

"I received an invitation, in fact."

"Oh good, I just realized I'd assumed you'd go with me."

She laughed. "If I don't get called on duty in an emergency, of course."

Harry tried to keep his mind off concerns for Belinda and Elizabeth, but found it difficult. He kept clear of the topic in conversation as they sat, but he was distracted. Finally, he said, "Want to go for a ride?" to which Tonks after teasing him, agreed.

- 888 -

Sunday for Hermione's party six of them settled into a corner table that afforded some privacy due to the irrational architecture of the Leaky Cauldron. Harry pushed the present he had brought across the table, gathering a sharp look from his old friend.

"Harry, what's this?"

"If you can't figure that one out," Ginny said of the beribboned package resting before them all, "I think you should disqualify yourself from teaching."

Ron gave his sister a slap on the arm.

Beside Ron, Vineet appeared slightly less than completely serene. Harry observed him in profile and hoped that angle accentuated his unhappiness. Hermione would glance at him and then glance away. Lavender caught onto this and shot Ron a knowing look, which Ron gallantly ignored or simply did not notice.

Hermione opened her tall gift and found it contained a stack of one of each kind of stationary currently sold at Flourish and Blotts.

"You'll be doing a lot of owling, I think," Harry said.

Hermione dabbed at her right eye. "I think you're right. It's going to be long months without seeing you all."

Ron said, "What's to stop us from coming up to Hogsmeade for a pint?"

"Well, I'm going to be terribly busy and I know it isn't so far away, but I suspect everyone will have other things to do."

"Yeah, I hear they lock all new teachers in the keep for the first year," Harry said. "Only the bats for company."

Hermione laughed, but her eyes were still too bright. "I feel like I'm going very far away, I'm not sure why."

Lavender said, "We'll come up to see you. Don't get all dewy-eyed about it. It's not like you're going to Durmstrang, then you would be on your own."

Harry had a feeling he understood this, that the opportunities to see Vineet were going to be cut down to nil. Vineet had not spoken at all, so Harry had no clue about his thoughts, which were apparently a matter of deep attention for him.

"It's going to be so strange, but I'm dying to get started," Hermione said. "I realized the last month how dreadfully bored I've been. I think this will put a stop to that." She went on, words flowing freely. "Headmistress said that after a few years I could be Head of House, even, Sinistra only took on the duty because there was no one else. Wouldn't that be just grand?"

"You sound like a kid again," Ron said, slight disgust clear in his voice.

"Don't you remember our first year at Hogwarts?" she asked him.

"I remember Voldemort tried to kill Harry. And then the second year he tried again . . ."

"Ron, that's not going to happen this time. Harry took care of him once and for all. Didn't you Harry?"

Her need for reassurance surprised him. "Yes. He's nothing now," he insisted.

Hermione smiled and announced, "I think we need another round."

- 888 -

As expected, Arthur came to the training room door to fetch Harry. They were mid-practice of neutralizing curse spells frequently used for traps, like the Supergummy Curse, the Infinite Fall Hex, and the Brain Spin Hex. Harry immediately abandoned Aaron to Tridant and Kerry Ann, who were competing vigorously on trapping each other.

"You're next up in the dungeon. Courtroom Ten," Mr. Weasley said before turning to go back to his office.

The torches in the dungeon always seem to burn fainter and colder than in the rest of the Ministry, suppressed perhaps by the damp, thin air. The breeze of Harry's striding by made the tall flames spasm once before standing still again. The masked guard outside the door could have been related to a troll. He moved his ax aside and let Harry stand before the door and wait for it to be opened from the inside. All of these preparations made Harry wonder if the Ministry actually had brought the vampire from the French prison for the trial, even if Snape did not believe they would. Harry swallowed hard; he had put aside thoughts of any risk to his secrets from the trial and now those worries woke and came piling on again.

"Ah, Mr. Potter," the presiding elder of the Wizengamot said when Harry entered. The door boomed closed behind Harry as he strode across the floor. He was relieved to find the chair in the center empty, chains slack, but not as pleased to see that Tiberius Ogden was presiding. The old wizard squinted at his papers and said, "We have questions, for you. And when we are through, the solicitor for the accused will have an opportunity to ask you anything relevant as well." Here he gestured over to the side at the lowest seats which held a row of witches and wizards in fine black robes trimmed in velvet. The tallest one, a stately, greying dark-haired man, gave Harry a searching look with his transparent blue eyes.

Ogden went on, "Poyser DeBenedictus and his associates are here in the accused's stead, due to security considerations. We have already dispensed with the protests over this decision. Your fellow Auror apprentice, one Barbarella Blackpool, will be called to testify as well but based on the report, she is not as reliable a witness as you have been judged to be, Mr. Potter."

Harry nodded in agreement and squinted into the high torches in an effort to see the faces in the tiers above him. Only twelve seats were occupied and McGonagall's seat was not one of them. On the far side a handful of reporters sat on stools added along the floor. Skeeter had her head of shining ringlets down, bracelets flashing as she wrote. Someone loudly cleared their throat during the lull while Ogden flipped through his parchments.

"Yes, Cornelius, we will be moving along presently. Now, Mr. Potter, we have read the report you signed off on, so we need not re-cover all of the events, but some points must be established to the satisfaction of this committee if we are to determine whether we should incarcerate the accused and for how long."

He went on to ask for more details about the vampire's hold over the Muggle family, asking specifics that surprised Harry, such as did the girl ever open her eyes or did she speak to the vampire. Harry had to admit she only moaned, which he was uncomfortable describing, and this must have come through because he could see amusement on at least two faces as he struggled.

"All right then," Ogden went on. "After that, Fueago was reported to attack Ms. Blackpool. You described him as 'hungry' in your report."

"Objection," DeBenedictus said, standing up, which showed him to be even taller than Harry imagined. "The witness cannot know this to be true and it is conjecture only."

Harry waited for his opportunity to speak and drawing on Snape's fine example of calm from the dinner on Friday, he said, "Fueago had his mouth open wide and he sniffed the air like a dog might when trying to find a scent. He moved jerkily, frantically," Harry also added, feeling that safe from the solicitor's reach to cancel out what he said.

Ogden finished up with his questions, which Harry strained his memory to reply to accurately. DeBenedictus stood again more deliberately, unfolding like a lamppost might he moved so rigidly. He eyed Harry as though not happy to see him there. "Why don't you take a seat, Mr. Potter," he said flatly.

"That's all right, I'll stand."

The man's voice did not modulate at all as he spoke, pitched to be heard clearly by the full assemblage while still sounding conversational. "Too familiar with that chair, are you? Well, your choice then."

Harry forced more calm on himself, having learned that this was not just defensive, but also could be used offensively and would suffice for the moment. He waited for a question as though bored.

DeBenedictus circled once, considering the tiers above them, picking out and attending to each individual peering down. Without warning, he asked, "Have you ever dealt with a vampire before, Mr. Potter, in the course of your Ministry work?"

"No, sir," Harry responded politely.

"No," the solicitor agreed like a whip-crack. "And indeed the report indicates that you did not even know the proper procedures that should be followed, such as taking a mouth swab within fifteen minutes of a vampire's purported attack. Did you know that was in the manual your very department keeps on file?" He turned and gestured at one of the wizards seated with his colleagues. "I have with me as a supporting witness none other than Eldred Worple, foremost expert on vampires and he can attest to your manual being veracious on this point."

He fell into a lecture mode then, as though pretending to help Harry for the next time. "You see, there can be no admissible determination of whether the vampire intended to create another vampire during the bite, if no swab is, within a short period of time, obtained and sealed in a silver box for later testing."

Harry wanted to shrug. He nodded weakly instead.

The solicitor went on still sounding kindly informative. "If you are, as Elder Ogden indicated, the best witness the Ministry Department of Magical Law Enforcement intends to produce for this trial, I would not be sanguine about your success in these proceedings."

Despite his heart rate rising, Harry believed he managed to hide his agitation. He imagined his department's dismay if, because of his testimony, Fueago went free. Harry said, "He kept that Muggle family terrorized for over a year. He told me when I confronted him that he was older than the British Isles itself and therefore above or outside our laws."

"Is that an exact quote or are you interpreting?" the solicitor asked.

Harry cast his mind back to the darkened bedroom in Burnipsbie. "He laughed when I told him he was breaking the rules and he said 'what rules?'"

"And that means what?" The solicitor paced away. "Only that he found something funny and wanted more information."

"He was mocking the whole notion," Harry insisted.

The solicitor tossed his hand as though this was ridiculous. Harry longed to say, like you're doing now, but he held it in. More calmly, Harry said, "When I told him there were Ministry of Magic rules he had to follow he said, and quote, 'Do not insult me'."

"He just simply meant that it was insulting to imply that he did not know such basic rules."

Harry ground his teeth and took a deep breath. The solicitor beat him to speaking. "Really, Mr. Potter, your reputation notwithstanding, you are a mere trainee. You failed to follow the required procedures, understandable of course," he said with small solicitous bow, "given that you haven't learned them yet."

Harry found the man's ultra-friendly patronizing tone the most aggravating of all. As he lost control of the situation, Harry found control of himself slipping away as well. "He lied to the guards at the French prison." This was lame, but it was the one thing Harry could convey with certainty.

"How do you know? You do not speak French."

"He told me he did. When I asked him what he'd said."

The solicitor addressed the tiers now. "How do you know he did not lie then? And besides, lying to a foreign national, especially a Frenchman, isn't a crime in Britain."

Harry tried not to fall prey to the frantic thoughts circling in head. He was going to fail at this and that had been unthinkable when he had walked in. He grasped at something, "You spoke to the girl. She should have been a witness too."

An unexpectedly welcome voice came from above. "And she will be, when we settle which expert Healer to believe about her mental state."

The solicitor, perhaps sensing an increasing advantage, moved in for the kill. "Mr. Fueago complains in fact about your assault on his person and your repeated threats to cut out his heart."

Harry found the heat rising in his throat a comfort all of a sudden. It felt good to get truly, unabashedly angry about something worth getting offended about. "How can one possibly assault a vampire?" Harry asked. "Ask Worple there. He'll tell you they can disappear out of our world at will or turn into a mist and slip away. How does one assault something like that?" Harry felt hemmed in by his own need to hide the truth, so he stopped there. He needed a better tactic and quick.

Harry's turning and putting up a fight set DeBenedictus back a step. The sound of papers rustling more loudly in the tiers bolstered Harry, who did not give the solicitor a chance to reply. He laid the bait out and expected it would not be resisted. "What I saw in a Muggle house in Burnipsbie was a rogue vampire, a hungry dark creature . . ."

DeBenedictus raised his finger. "I objected to that already, Mr. Potter." He turned to the tiers, "I wish it to be stricken ag . . ."

"Why?" Harry asked sharply, too sharply. He needed more control.

DeBenedictus turned to him and Harry found his eyes and latched on. "Why?" Harry asked again, less excitedly.

"Perhaps you are more daft than expected, Mr. Potter, but you cannot know someone's motives if they are unspoken and sometimes not even if they are spoken . . ."

Harry cut him off. "I'm a Legilimens, Mr. DeBenedictus, I can indeed know a person's motives without he or she speaking them." He left off that this was not true of the Vampire.

DeBenedictus stopped, elevated finger slowly falling. It was Harry's turn and the man was stunned enough not to look away. "For example, I know you regret having to interview me of all people but are also thrilled at the possibility of besting me before this group." The man made the mistake of glancing for help at the reporters behind Harry before glancing back. Harry said, "You think Rita Skeeter should perhaps not wear such a short skirt and bright red tights to a serious official proceedings, but you think she does have nice legs."

Now DeBenedictus retreated two full steps. To the chair, he demanded, "Is he on the record as having this skill?"

Surprisingly bored sounding, Ogden waved at Fudge, who flipped through a stack of files in the trunk before him and handed one up to him. Ogden perused what must be Harry's file. While they waited, Harry, finding a patronizingly helpful tone himself, said to the solicitor, "It's the same skill your client would be using against you were the French not potioning him into oblivion. You do realize that, I assume?"

Ogden spoke. "Yes, it is listed on Mr. Potter's internal biographical form and on his application to the Aurors program." A pause ensued before Ogden said, "Are you finished with the questioning of this witness, Mr. DeBenedictus?"

The solicitor licked his lips and had trouble speaking. "Yes." and then again with a normal voice: "Yes. I'm through." He hurried back to his files. His assistants rose up to assist even though they did not appear to be needed.

Harry thought that for a man whose primary weapon was hairsplitting to support the subtle ruse of his logic, discovering he was utterly exposed could be rightfully upsetting. As the solicitor kept his back to him, Harry's initial burst of elation simmered down into plain relief that he had survived.

Ogden spoke to Harry. "Perhaps in the interest of the defense's mental state, you should retire from the room. If we have any more questions, you will be called back. Next witness."

Harry tried not to grin. He turned to go, catching Skeeter's eye. She lifted one red calf slightly as though teasing, then shot him a look of grudging respect. Harry strode by her, not giving any ground to her either.

Back in the training room when Rodgers asked how it went, Harry asked in return, "Are we getting instruction in how to handle testimony before the Wizengamot?"

Rodgers chuckled lightly. "You will indeed, but third year."

Harry dropped into a chair. "We need it."

Still smiling Rodgers asked, "Went that badly?"

Harry felt a bit hung out on his own. "I could have used some preparation, some coaching." His voice sounded a bit blameful, so he added, "Sir."

Rodgers held his notes to his chest and said, "First off, I thought you had enough experience to handle yourself well enough, and second, the case doesn't hinge on you, but on the girl's testimony and the lab examination of the family."

Harry was relieved to hear that. "Oh."

After a short stare at Harry, Rodgers asked, "DeBenedictus take you apart?"

"He tried," Harry conceded, still aggravated by his early performance and the fierce fighting back that losing so much ground necessitated.

Rodgers found this amusing and he continued smiling as he returned to an introduction of heat-seeking hexes.

- 888 -

Friday, Harry arrived home after the pubs closed and his fellows had begged off searching for other amusement. Hermione's party had inspired Harry to get the five of them to spend more time together outside the Ministry even at the risk of their fieldwork sharpness. He was glad he had because Tridant by the time they left the last place, he behaved less reserved and brightly said he would see them all on Monday.

The house hung in stillness. Harry almost simply walked up the stairs to his bedroom, but the dark hall made the candlelight from the dining room clearly apparent. He stepped down backwards and glanced inside, surprised to find Snape resting his head on the table, pillowed with his arm.

"Severus?" Harry prompted.

Snape raised his head and reached out as though to grab something, presumably the tipped-over decorative bottle, its surface of green beaded swirls plucking at the gutted candlelight.

"Did you drink all that?" Harry asked in concern.

Snape righted the bottle with noisy effort and glared at it accusingly.

"Severus?" Harry prompted again. He slipped the delicate bottle out of Snape's grasp and set it on the mantel out of harm's way. "Where's Candide?"

Snape waved in a way that indicated elsewhere. Aloud, Harry remembered, "Oh, that's right. It's her hens' night tonight, isn't it?"

Gesturing at his own chest, Snape said, "Flashing robes."

"They wore flashing robes?" Harry confirmed.

Snape nodded and gestured at his head. "Matching . . . flashing hats."

"That was enough to drive you to drink?" Harry asked doubtfully.

Snape's hair tossed as he shook his head. He laid his forehead on the back of his hands, flat on the table. "Didn't help," he muttered.

Harry pulled the head chair out and sat down at it with a sigh, hands clasped between his knees. A pile of post lay unattended on the sideboard beneath the window and towering over that were the parchments and white leather planning books Candide had been using for the wedding.

"What else is the matter?" he asked.

A long pause ensued. Harry tried to be patient.

"I'm not fit for this," came the reply that filtered up from the table.

"You've said that before," Harry said. "It's not any more convincing this time 'round."

Snape rotated his scraggly head. Harry patted him on the shoulder. "Come on. If it were me doing this, you'd give me hell for it."

"'S different."

"Oh, how so?"

Snape did not reply and in the silence a voice in the back of Harry's own head reminded him how very much damage a few unleashed demons could do. Snape for all his bluster and snide insults could not touch that.

Harry patted him harder, forcing himself out of his self-rumination with effort. "Come on now . . . what is it?" he asked more strictly.

Snape lifted his head. His eyes were red-rimmed and his face elongated as though melting. "How did I let it get to this?"

"Severus, you can't back out now," Harry insisted with firmness.

"No," Snape agreed. "The flowers are on their way to some Merlinforsaken glen somewhere or other."

Harry blinked at that. "How much sherry was left in that bottle?" When Snape held up his fingers, Harry said, "Two bottles? No wonder." Harry gripped Snape's wrist. "Everything's going to work out," Harry heard himself say. Those words worked to sound hollow, but Harry truly believed them.

Snape murmured "Hero of Wizardry says I should go through with it . . . it's not a farce." He passed a hand through his hair and sounded the headline reader as he said, "Former Death Eater, now upright citizen." He deflated after this pronouncement. "It's not going to work."

"What's not going to work?" Harry asked sternly.

Snape again did not reply.

Harry cajoled, "Come on. You're going to love being a dad. You'll have a little Slytherin around the house." A pause. "Well, I'm assuming he'll be a Slytherin," Harry said thoughtfully.

Snape's poorly focussed eyes slipped farther away. "What if he is not?" he asked with dread.

"No chance of that. Well, maybe Ravenclaw, like Candide, that'd be all right." Harry wanted to sooth him, but found honesty getting in the way.

"Ravenclaw . . . that would be all right. Smart enough to stay out of trouble. As long as he isn't a . . . Gryffindor."

"Well, thanks," Harry complained, stung.

The tired, black gaze slipped Harry's way, but it lacked the usual razor keenness. "You think you're still a Gryffindor?" Snape asked with slurred curiosity.


"Hm," came the ambiguous reply that indicated only that this topic was of continuing interest. Snape gave up on it and scrubbed his eyes. "You don't have anything to drink, do you? Stashed somewhere perhaps? Winky refused to fetch more."

Harry laughed. "I'd have pulled it out for myself already if I did. You need your pink stuff, not more drink."

"I want to be drunk," Snape insisted. "Why does Candide get all the . . . fun?"

"I'll take you out if you want," Harry said. "I could get a crew together. McGonagall, for example, would pay to see you like this. She'd buy a few more rounds, surely."

Snape broke out laughing, a harsh, odd sound. He then returned his head to resting on his arm.

"Do you want to be found like this or do you want me to brew you up some pink stuff?"

"I don't care. I don't care about her bloody parents. I don't care about this."

"I don't believe you," Harry criticized. "Severus Snape and his all important dignity would care whether he were found snookered by his wife to be." Harry stood and propped his hands on his hips. "Are you playing for pity?"

Snape's head came up, eyes blaring. Harry had pushed too far.

"Sorry," Harry quickly said and reached for Snape's shoulder, but it was jerked out of reach. In making this sudden move, which tipped the chair onto two legs, Snape unbalanced himself and tumbled sideways onto the floor.

Harry came around to help him up, apologizing again.

"Leave it be, Potter," Snape said while pressing himself up with his hands, splayed wide and pale on the dark wooden floor.

It took the combination of his last name and the tone to make Harry back off and let Snape right himself rather than give him reason to escalate into real viciousness.

Snape sat back in the chair, even more hunched. "Leave me be," he said.

Harry leaned closer. "Please don't do this," he pleaded, getting no variance in Snape staring straight ahead. There was nothing for it. Harry said, "You're afraid it's going to be as bad for your son as it was for you? It isn't you know. But that's it, isn't it?"

"Merlin," Snape replied as though stunned.

Harry said to reassure him: "No, you're not really that transparent. That was a lucky guess."

This drew quite a glare from Snape.

"That very last wasn't a guess," Harry quickly explained. "I just know you that well at least."

He re-grabbed Snape's wrist, which he was allowed to do, and said, "It's going to be better this time. You'd do fine on your own, I know you would, but you don't even have to. We're both here to help you. You act like this is still just you. That's the biggest thing this adoption's taught me is that I don't have to go through anything alone. We're in this together and after Sunday it'll be all three of us. You think we'd let you mess up that badly?"

Snape tugged his arm free and rested his cheek on his arm again.

Harry gave up, assuming the alcohol was hopelessly in the way of reasoning. "We both love you, you know. If you haven't figured out yet how to deal with that, you better do so right quick." At the door, Harry added, "If you want something to sober up, give a shout; I'll be in the library."

Harry perused the crammed bookshelves, pulling out books based on their color, not really in the mood to read anything for long. He wanted to sleep but felt he should keep watch and he could do so from here.

When Candide returned, Harry could see her robes flickering all the way to the walls of the hall out of the corner of his eye.

"You waited up?" he heard her ask Snape.

Harry hurried that way and from the dining room door said, "No, he's drunk off his arse."

She gaped at Harry. "Severus is?"

Harry nodded. Snape had not moved. "Maybe he's passed out now," Harry said.

Candide prodded a shoulder with no response. "Maybe we should move him to the couch."

Harry pulled out his wand, but she stopped him with. "He hates being hovered."

So the two of them, with the addition of a Feather-light Charm, carried his dead weight to the hall where it fit in better on one of the long couches than at the table. Harry sat down with a sigh on the other couch and Candide sat directly beside. Stale pipe-smoke drifted off her, but no scent of alcohol.

"What happened?" Candide asked.

"I wasn't here," Harry said. "Hey, Severus!" Harry shouted and when there was only a twitch in response, he decided it was safe to talk. "He's doubting himself and once he got started I expect drink only made it worse."

"Severus doubting himself," she uttered as though trying out a string of foreign words.

"Oh, don't let him fool you," Harry said, figuring that Snape had given up any rights to retain the illusion of his posturing about the same time he lost consciousness. "He doubts himself all the time. That's the usual reason he gets angry, when he does. Well, people just annoy him to, but if he's really worked up, it's probably something in his own head."

She stared at Harry as she took that in and then looked back at Snape.

Harry asked, "How was your party?"

She smiled. "Oh, excellent . . . brill. We had a great time, Dublin has a very nice Magical Corridor along the river. Have you been there?"

Harry shook his head, trying to hide his amusement at her almost bubbly shift in demeanor.

She sighed again and clasped her hands together out straight. "Well, it's nice to know even he has a breaking point."

"He has lots," Harry said, standing up "Why do you think he works so hard to hide them? I'll be right back." Determined to right Snape so he they could all go to sleep, Harry collected the ingredients for his favorite potion, a foamy pink liquid that rendered one free of immediate and past effects due to over-consumption of alcohol.

Harry set up a burner on the floor to mix up one of the two key ingredients which they had run out of. He poured in a splash of ground cardamom, blue poppy seeds and horntail horn steeped in vodka. When this evaporated and left a sticky residue, he added bright blue powdered robin's egg and mountain goat milk. He stirred for a while, becalmed by having something concrete to do.

"Did Severus teach you how to brew?" Candide asked from where she reclined on the couch, one hand resting on her belly.

"Yeah," Harry admitted.

Minutes later it was finished and when poured into the Enchanted Mineral Water, it foamed a promising pink. Without preamble, Harry, bottle in hand, tugged Snape to a sitting position. His head lolled before it straightened up.

"Drink this," Harry commanded.

Snape at first seemed to want to resist, but he took the bottle and took a swig.

"It's hot," Snape observed. He rubbed his face. "Did you just brew that?"


He swung his legs to the side. "As long as you didn't poison me."

"Such confidence he has in me," Harry said, hovering the brewing setup back to the toilet.

In Harry's absence, Snape forced his tired eyes to focus on Candide, who had sat straight as well.

"Have a good evening?" he asked.

"Had a wonderful one. Looks like you did to."

Snape tried once to speak but then said, "Your sarcasm is not welcome right now."

She stood up and sat down beside him, arms enfolding him. "All right now?"

"Better," he admitted.

Harry stepped back in, saw them there, appeared to think he should sneak off but sat down opposite them instead. "You make a cute couple," Harry said.

"You did find more booze," Snape accused him. "Otherwise there would be absolutely no excuse for saying such preposterous thing."

Harry laughed. "Oh, come on. Relax a little." With his eyes he apologized for provoking him. He assumed the message was received because Snape suddenly looked away.

"Well," Candide announced. "I'm tuckered out. It was a long evening. Ready to sleep for real rather than just passing out?"

"If I must," Snape said, standing with her. He halted their departure long enough to turn and say. "Fine job on the brewing."

"Anytime," Harry replied.

Next chapter: 9
Harry was deeply involved in this book—actually a collection of notes compiled during a meeting of ISMS or International Society of Mage Studies—when Snape stepped in and jerked his head as though Harry should leave.

Harry closed the book and stood, taking it along.

Snape said, "Don't you have friends you should be out with?"

Harry scratched his jaw. "I suppose."

Brusquely, Snape said, "Candide will be home shortly and I have something I wish to discuss with her, alone."

Author notes chapter 9 is in rough shape so give me at least 10 days. I will soon add a progress bar to my website at darkirony dot com so you can check how things are progressing.

Chapter 9: Fortune Favors
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Chapter 9 — Fortune Favors

Harry stretched his arms as he strode through the house; they were stiff from a real workout instead of field shadowing. Rodgers had decided suddenly that they were all softening up too much and had set aside Saturday afternoon for weights and some Eastern Arts, demonstrated by Vineet. Harry's elbow twinged, reminding him that he had discovered the hard way that morning that Tridant also had a bit of background in this. He and Vineet, for the rest of the session, had circled each other as though sizing one another up in a new way. Harry grinned at the memory of it as he opened his post.

Under a large brochure declaring Ragnarth's Roustabout — Dangerous pet training is easier than you think! and more affordable than you might imagine! he found a package from Hermione. It contained a stack of books she had found on the new book carousel at Flourish and Blotts during one last round of book buying before school started. The note spellotaped to the stack indicated she feared he may not be able to do without them. Chuckling at his friend's ongoing proclivity for educating him, Harry picked up the top one, a thin book with a title of constantly fading and regenerating ink. It read Spell Dissipation: Current Thinking.

Harry was deeply involved in this book—actually a collection of notes compiled during a meeting of ISMS or International Society of Mage Studies—when Snape stepped in and jerked his head as though Harry should leave.

Harry closed the book and stood, taking it along.

Snape said, "Don't you have friends you should be out with?"

Harry scratched his jaw. "I suppose."

Brusquely, Snape said, "Candide will be home shortly and I have something I wish to discuss with her, alone."

"I can go out," Harry said amiably. His thoughts immediately leapt to doing more remote vision practice with Kali. He slipped by Snape, saying, "I'll be back later. I can go to the Burrow for dinner; Ron always tells me his mum expects him to invite me."

Snape gestured dismissively that that was acceptable. Harry kept his curiosity in check as he put his things together and collected his pet from her cage. She bit him because he woke her up and he threatened her with sending her to Ragnarth. Either she understood him or simply caught his disapproval, because she rubbed the injured spot with the side of her head. Harry stuffed her into his pocket, where she curled up and most likely went back to sleep.

Before he departed, Harry stepped to the doorway of his room to catch a glimpse of the hall. He spent a breath studying Snape's self-absorbed pose as he stood before the couches, then Disapparated before Snape could chance to look up at him.

Ron was not home yet from Gringotts but Ginny sat at the long table with Weasley Wizard Weezes boxes stacked before her. Her hunched and involved scribbling on a large sheet of parchment, hair veiling her task, drew Harry that way, unable to stomach even more curiosity.

Ginny looked up at his approach. "Hi, Harry." She went back to carefully darkening the lines around a giant label reading Galloping Galoshes. The Gs sprouted little running feet sticking out the bottom.

"How are things at the Twins' shop?"

Vexed, she said, "They won't let me help with anything dangerous, so I've been redoing the packaging. There's a lot of neat stuff that gets overlooked and the peak Hogwarts shopping season is upon us. You wouldn't believe how disorganized those two are. Verity used to straighten up, but she gave up doing that like a year ago."

Making conversation, Harry asked, "How do the new students look? Have you seen any of them come into the shop?"

"They look small," she said, making Harry laugh. "And their squeaky voices get on my nerves. And I think I could sort them as well as the hat, if not better."

"I'll let McGonagall know, in case the hat finally gives up."

Ginny raised her head again, eyes shining. "THAT'D be fun. I could sit in a big gold chair at the front and point at each tiny student. YOU, you're a Hufflepuff. Your shoes aren't tied, they're knotted, and you're holding your wand backwards. YOU, come on, those glasses could ignite a forest fire, RAVENCLAW!" She laughed. "Ah, a girl can dream."

Mrs. Weasley came in, and fussed over Harry before fetching him milk and a snack even though dinner was imminent.

Quietly, Ginny said, "Gosh, Mum is out of control where you're concerned."

Harry nibbled on a broken bit of shortbread and said, "You get special treatment too."

"That's because I'm the only girl," she stated as fact.

"It's a good thing," Harry said, thinking aloud.

Ginny erased some stray lines from inside her letters and reached for a bottle of brown ink. "Why?"

Not quite there, because he was seeing a vision of some other place, like this one but in critical ways, different, Harry said, "Because you'd be the seventh son."

"I always thought that be fun," Ginny said.

Harry's skin chilled as though an arctic breeze had slipped through his robes. "Maybe it doesn't matter," he said. He wasn't sure what he was seeing, it was more a sense, an alternative alignment of things that composed a reasonable whole of their own.

Ginny set the pen down. "Maybe what doesn't matter? Harry you are getting all Trelawney on me here. I don't like it."

Harry dropped his gaze from the arched window over the door, but the sense persisted. "Maybe it doesn't matter that you aren't a boy, I mean," Harry felt he should responsibly explain, just in case it might matter some day.

"You think I'm a sorcerer then?" she half-teased, clearly wanting to lighten the subject.

Harry who had heard that word from Snape in reference to himself, just shrugged.
She waved a hand around, "Whoosh, look, a palace in place of the Burrow. Up, nope. Guess I'm not." She picked up her quill again and returned to carefully outlining the letters.

"Do you want the running feet to move?" Harry asked as she inked over the pencil lines, complete with little jagged treads on the boots.

She sat back. "I'd love the running feet to move. You know how to do that?"

Harry smiled and slid the drawing over to himself, careful not to upset the row of ink bottles. "I spent a summer trying to remake the Marauders' Map. 'Course I can make the feet move."

- 888 -

Back in Shrewsthorpe, Snape approached Candide as she sorted through the pile of parchments on the sideboard, unrolling each in search of something.

"Oh, hi," she said, vaguely startled by his silent approach. She picked up and waved a pink envelope. "My old chum from accounting school finally replied. She's been living in Paris, or so I thought, but the reply came from Cape Town." She laughed. "No wonder it took so . . . "

Snape took the fluttering letter from her and placed it near a pile of similarly sliced open envelopes, then took the current parchment away as well. "I have something I wish to show you," he stated.

This grabbed her full attention. "What is it?"

His reply was to lead the way to the hall where he gestured that she should sit. He removed something from his pocket and handed it to her.

"It's a rock wrapped with wire?" She queried, holding up a jet-black rock bundled twice around the middle with metal cord.

Snape tapped the rock and the cord fell away. Candide caught half the rock as it split and a ring that fell out of the middle.

"Hey!" she said, surprised. She scooped up the other half of the rock as it tried to roll loudly away under the couch. "Look at that, a golden ring!"

Snape sat beside and took the rock halves away and then the ring as well, so he could hold it up by the prongs of the empty setting. "This is no ordinary ring formed as the earth was. I made it." His eyes positively gleamed as he placed the ring back in her palm.

"You made the ring?" she confirmed.

"I made the gold," Snape corrected, voice low.

Candide stared at the ring while pushing it around her palm with a fingertip. "How does one make gold?"

"Out of lead. It is a base-metal transformation," Snape replied, clearly enjoying the explanation.

She stared at him. "You've been doing alchemy."

Snape reached into his pocket again and pulled forth a small deep red stone, a bit large for a ring, but with a spell, the prongs of the fitting were convinced to take hold of it. As though explaining to a student, he said, "There was only sufficient ingredients left by my old mentor for a small stone. Easily enough to make the ring and . . ." He held the ring to the light. "Thirty years of elixir. Perhaps forty if one is stingy."

Her face shifted, eyes widening. "You made a Philosopher's Stone?" She accepted the ring as he held it out and also held it up to the lamp. "How . . . I didn't know there really was such a thing!"

Dryly, he said, "How else could I make gold?" He sat back casually and breathed out as though boring of the topic. "I imagined such a stone to be far more symbolic than a mere diamond, which is nearly worthless in comparison, and I have observed over the last month that burning time and money on pointless symbolic things was the purpose of the marriage ceremony. If not, it has no purpose."

She shot him a playfully dismayed look and slipped the ring on. "Stone's a . . . bit big, isn't it?"

"Once you decide to use it for elixir it won't be." He sat forward and lifted her hand to hold the ring out before them both. "But I recommend waiting until you are no longer pregnant. I have no idea what the effects might be. At best you would simply remain so longer. The consequences could be unpredictable, though."

She pulled the ring close and closed her hand over it. "No, I'd definitely wait." She held her hand out again. The stone was uneven but deep, so it caught the light and magnified it. "It's lovely though."

He held out his hand. "I'll keep it for now if you wish. Bad luck, isn't it, wearing the ring ahead of time?"

"That's the dress," she corrected, grinning. But with a vigorous tug and twist she pulled the ring off. "Fits perfectly."

"I measured. Of course," Snape intoned.

"You're a devil, you know that," she accused with affection.

"Slytherin, but why mince words?" he asked while fingering the ring thoughtfully.

She rocked sideways to bump shoulders. "Are you ready for this? I mean, you've been working day and night on the ring."

"I will never be ready, so it is no matter."

"As long as you're sober when they make you sign the certificate, so it's legal."

Snape slipped the ring away in a pocket and tapped it with a Nonobscondus Charm. "You said you did not want a binding spell. Is that still true?" his tone was too even as he asked this.

"I don't want one. I didn't think you would."

"I don't. It is a terrible ongoing coercion."

She grabbed her knee and rocked back beside him. "Some find it romantic, that total commitment."

"They deserve each other, then," Snape uttered. "And the hell the spell will put them through before one of them goes mad or they find a wizard powerful enough to cancel it, if that is possible."

Candide smiled into her sleeve. "If you even wondered why I didn't ask your opinion on flowers, now you know."

"I don't mind flowers," Snape corrected.

This caught her. "You don't?"

"Not at all," he replied. "They are composed of wonderfully useful potion ingredients."

This brought on a real laugh. "You should let that sense of humor out more. Usually you only use it for sarcasm."

He put an arm around her and she fit well nestled there. "It would ruin my reputation if I did that."

- 888 -

Harry did not need to move from his spot at the Weasley kitchen table; dinner and the Weasley family gathered around, except the twins and Charlie, who could not make it. Ron sat beside Harry and immediately began critiquing his sister's drawing, which Ginny put a stop to by pointing out that Harry had helped with it. When Harry looked over from Ron it was to find Molly insisting that Percy sit across from him. Percy had a distant, hard expression that lacked the normal pinching or smugness, making Harry wonder if he wasn't Moody again. Percy tore his eyes from Harry and watched Mr. Weasley enter and sit down after giving Molly a hug.

When he looked back at Harry, Harry boldly said to him, "Not yourself today again, are you?"

After a moment's consideration of the meaning of this, Percy's eyes flickered to a more normal alarm before shifting away, back to Mr. Weasley, making Harry believe it really was Percy and that he understood that Harry knew Moody had impersonated him for his Darkness Test. At least, Harry hoped he understood that.

"He comes to dinner a lot," Ginny whispered in Harry's ear with more than a hint of annoyance.

Harry wished he knew who had taught Percy to Occlude his mind. Harry, feigning a friendly tone, asked him, "How are things in the Department of Mysteries?"

Slightly mocking, Percy replied, "Mysterious. What else would they be?"

Beside Harry, Ron laughed as though this were a real joke. "Mysterious," he echoed and laughed more.

"Get any special training for that?" Harry asked.

"Quite a bit," came the flat reply. They were staring each other down now, both holding their thoughts obscured. Harry decided the game was stupid and turned to Ron to ask about his day. When the dishes were being passed and Molly asked Arthur how his day was, Harry noticed Percy set down the gravy without serving himself any and turn his attention that way. Harry realized with a jolt that he and Percy could both pry into the minds of anyone at the table, but that perhaps of the two of them, only Harry was scrupulous enough not to do it.

When Percy tore his gaze from the head of the table and picked the gravy back up and passed it without taking any, despite being about do so before, Harry asked innocently, "Learn anything?"

Percy spent an inordinate time finding a reply, which attracted the attention of most of those seated at their area of the table. "Research . . . is what we do," he said, quoting from something, most likely. "And the Mysteries, like Enforcement, offers considerable training."

Harry took his uneasy response to mean that he did not like getting caught out. For his part, Harry wondered how he was going to warn Mr. Weasley without getting pinched between his boss' strong loyalty to his family and his less strong loyalty to Harry.

Harry had not worked out how to handle this by the time he begged off that he had to go home because the next day was full of helping set up for the wedding on Monday.

It was Ginny who asked, "Why Monday?"

Harry, about to depart, felt the need to defend Candide on this point. "It's auspicious, according to the constellations, both their horoscopes," he explained. In his mind's eye he saw all the astronomical charts and plots that Candide had worked out in one of those white leather books.

"She had a joint chart made up? Those are pricey."

"She did it herself," Harry said. "Said it was just like accounting, only with parabolas, or something. Took her ages to work it all out. And the glen of her choice was free that day. For a weekend, they'd have had to wait until the kid was in Hogwarts, or so she said."

Ginny laughed. "Maybe I should rent a place now and find a boyfriend later then."

From the kitchen, Molly loudly encouraged, "Good idea, dear."

Ginny put her hand over her face.

"Well, you better get going," Ron said suddenly from where he hunched over the chess board across from Bill. When Harry waited, curious, he explained in a whisper, "Mum's got you pegged for Ginny, you know."

Ginny stuffed her hands violently into crossed mode and glared at her brother, a blush topping off the effect. "Ron . . ." she threatened.

Rescuing her, Harry said, "That's all right, Severus does too," to which Ginny gaped, "Really?"

"I really have to go now," Harry said.

Ginny pulled her artwork closer and said, "I have to finish this so I can get back to working on that sorcerer bit."

"What?" Ron and Bill both asked in unison.

"Harry said I could be a sorcerer."

The two Weasley sons turned to Harry with dismay. "What?" Bill asked Harry.

Harry shrugged. "Got to go. Really."

At home, Harry found Candide and Snape playing cards on a the stained spare door from upstairs, hovered expertly between the couches.

"Not too early, am I?" Harry asked, feeling vaguely left out even though his evening had been full of company.

"Not at all," Candide said brightly. "Show him what you made, Severus, or has he already seen it?"

Snape's hair fell forward as he fished in his pocket after touching it with his wand. "He has not." Snape held out a ring with a rather gaudily large stone.

Harry accepted it and stared at it, recognizing the color and the unusually curved faces of the asymmetrical facets. "It's a Philosopher's Stone," Harry breathed, stunned.

"Severus made it," Candide declared proudly.

Harry lifted his eyes to peer at Snape over the ring. "You did? I didn't know you knew how."

Snape held his hand out for the ring and Harry relinquished it. "It isn't so much the knowledge, which can be pieced together by anyone diligent enough, as well as practiced with deciphering the coded writing of the arcane, paranoid mind, the real sticking point is the extraordinary ingredients required. I was left just enough by Albus, it turns out." He studied the ring. "Much cheaper to make gold than to buy it. Back in the times when Galleons were more than dipped in gold it would have been easy to obtain sufficient metal.

Harry nodded vaguely. The stone made him uneasy and he was not hiding it well.

"Does it bother you?" Snape asked bluntly.

Harry tipped one shoulder. "Just bad memories," he replied, not wanting to dampen their enthusiasm, or Snape's pride. "Voldemort can't make use of it anymore."

Snape said, "It isn't a large enough stone to raise the dead. I think that is why Albus felt secure in keeping the ingredients."

Harry said, "Maybe he worried he would need to stay alive a little longer, so he kept them just in case."

Candide folded her cards together and set them down. "Is that how he lived so long?"

Snape nodded. "With judicious use of it and a little luck, you too could live to be a hundred and sixty."

Candide pulled her head back in surprise, but took the ring and examined it. "If I got rid of all the mirrors in the house, maybe. Otherwise no. Men look much better at that age than women. Women turn into white prunes . . . men turn into sages." She held the ring out to Snape. "You should use it; you're older than me. That way I can catch up." As he accepted it, she changed her mind. "Or Harry should use it. Wizardom needs him around longer than you or I."

Snape held the ring up for Harry again, but Harry did not take it. "No, keep it. It's probably the most valuable ring in the world."

Candide held out her hand, fingers splayed. "You'll have to charm it on for me . . . so it can't come off."

Snape shook his head. "In that case a thief would have to kill you for it and that would hardly be worth it."

"There are lots of theft-repelling charms," Harry offered.

Snape nodded. "We will manage something," he promised Candide.

- 888 -

Swaying decorations and the clashing scents of flowers spiraled in Harry's head Sunday night as he slipped fitfully into sleep. The continuously rotating streamers and the bright columns of the three-foot, white candles shifted into the dark, smoke marred walls and torches of Courtroom Ten. He was trying to explain something to the Wizengamot, trying to convince them of something, but he was doing a very poor job of it. The members' shadowed faces peered down at him from tier upon tier rising up until they tilted so the parchments before them must slide forward onto the center floor, but somehow did not.

Harry scanned for a familiar face, but found when he peered closely, each face was that of Umbridge, frog-like smile stretched unnaturally long and sinister. Grey dirt covered the floor and discolored the bottom edge of Harry's new robes. Shaking them raised clouds of choking dust. In the center of the floor, half buried in a saw-grass hillock, rose the chair and chained into it was Snape, glaring defiantly straight ahead. Beside the chair, Candide, in her tulip-like wedding dress, tugged uselessly at the chains, glancing about frequently to check if anyone noticed her doing this.

Harry struggled to find something convincing to say. Vernon Dursley approached, as tall as DeBenedictus but not any thinner, so he seemed akin to Hagrid. Dust clouds stirred around his menacing footsteps as he approached. Harry's feet tried to back off, but he forced them to remain in place by reminding himself that he'd been willing to sacrifice himself to Voldemort previously, so he should be willing to do the same to Mr. Dursley.

Dursley ranted about freaks and evil magic. From the chair, Snape hissed at him, snake-like, revealing long, sharp teeth.

Harry woke at this. Kali was hissing from her cage. Disoriented, Harry sat up and pushed the chaos of the dream down. The musty draft in the room drifted off and Kali settled back into her rag pile.

Harry dropped back onto his pillow, thinking he should not have eaten quite so many of the fire-biscuits while hanging decorations. He stared at the grey ceiling. In the dimness the patching was not apparent; the room appeared unmarred.

Harry's eyelids refused to stay open and he was sucked unwillingly back into the dream, where the troll-cousin guard approached, sparks scattering off the ax he dragged behind him. He released the chains on the chair and with a heave of his great arm, shoved Snape in Harry's direction.

Harry helped right his guardian, but found as he did so, not his Snape, but the one from the other dream, the bedraggled and defeated Snape with eyes of hazardous black ice. Harry glanced around the courtroom for help but everyone was departing. Only McGonagall turned to him and when she spoke it revealed pointed ivory teeth. Harry grabbed hold of Snape's robes and tugged him to the door, wanting only to escape, but as soon as he stepped into the corridor they Disapparated away.

Harry stared down at the trodden trash lining the road where they had arrived, and with dread glanced up to find he stood before the house in Weaver's End. Snape had hold of his wrist and Candide's and now pulled them toward the house.

"You're home now too, I suppose," he said with vague disgust.

Harry tried to resist, to pull back against the force applied to his arm. The door to the house opened and Pettigrew, wearing an oversized tea towel, stood there. He reached out a hand and the pound notes he clutched caught the breeze and fluttered away to mix with the rubbish.

Harry woke to scrambling in his pyjama pockets for a wand. Even after it was clear he lay in his own room, he took up his wand from under the pillow and held it, just to feel the warm hum of it against his fingertips. He sighed into the darkness, a noise accompanied by Kali climbing inside her cage.

Fully awake, Harry slipped out of his warm, welcome bed and over to his pets. As quietly as possible, he released them for company. The metallic sounds of turning Kali's cage latch rang starkly in the dark bedroom, making him pause to listen for footsteps before moving to the next cage.

Cuddled between his hand and his breast, he carried Kali to the window and sat on the trunk beneath it to stare out at the streetlamp, which barely illuminated even the full width of the small road outside. A handful of bright stars glittered beyond the black branches of the stout trees across the road. Kali circled twice, brushing her soft body fur on his hand, before settling in so her only movement was the nearly imperceptible expansion and contraction of her breathing.

Her contentedness drew him in, but he felt compelled to remain alert. In his sleepy mind he needed to remain on guard to prevent that other place from encroaching upon this one, tonight of all nights. Harry rested his sweat-slippery wand on the windowsill so he would not drop it if he fell asleep; it barely fit there lengthwise. He gripped his pet with both hands, and stared out at the paltry pool of light on the tarmac beyond the crumbling garden wall.

Snape, unable to sleep for his own reasons, peered some time later through the doorway of Harry's room. A form huddled at the window, snowy owl perched on its shoulder. Orange-glowing fug haloed Harry's nose where it rested against the window pane. He looked small again, communing with his pets in this inexplicable vigil before the cold and breath-clouded window. Wanting time to understand, Snape did not immediately wake him. Careful not to disturb Harry, he leaned close to the window. Other than the empty circle of lit road and the two wan lights on the station platform, nothing was visible outside. The scene gave a sense that the world ended beyond that, no path in or out except via the starlit sky.

Snape straightened and held out three fingers for the owl, who tilted her head curiously but stepped onto them and accepted a ride back to the top of her cage. He waved one of the bedside lamps up and examined Harry from this new vantage point, wondering again why he sat in such an uncomfortable position when his bed was a mere seven feet away. Propped there, neck bent too far to the side and down, mouth parted, he did not appear even remotely powerful. As he stepped forward to lay a hand on Harry's shoulder, he fixed that much-needed notion firmly: this was first and foremost just a young man.

"Harry," Snape prompted.

Harry's head lifted and he blinked at the window in confusion. Snape had a hold of his thoughts and saw many similar vigils: summer nights away from Hogwarts waiting for owls, waiting for his friends, waiting for any hoped-for improvement in his situation. This past receded in a blink, and Harry shivered.

"Why are you out of bed?" Snape asked, not unkindly.

Harry's thoughts were Occluded then, so the only hint to an unobscured answer was in his brow curling worriedly.

"I had a bad dream." Harry stood then with the easy unfolding only the young can exhibit. He stopped after a second thought to grab up his wand, taking care to hold Kali against his chest.

"Do you wish to talk about it?" Snape asked.

Harry passed him on the way to the bed, where he slipped his wand inside the bottom of the pillowcase before settling in with his back against the headboard. "I don't want to bother you with it, tonight of all nights."

Snape stood beside the bed, considering before saying: "You are no less important than you were."

"I know that. But you have a big day tomorrow." Harry shivered and shrugged the duvet up to his shoulders.

Snape laid a hand on his face. "You are a little cold, but I expect that is from the window."

"It was an ordinary dream," Harry insisted.

"Not a nightmare?" Snape suggested.

"Well, maybe. But it's no matter."

Snape said, "I wish you would tell me," but it lacked command.

Harry lifted Kali out of the covers and placed her on the duvet to pet her. She stretched her membranous wings and shook the fur of her body out straight before sniffing the air in Snape's direction with her tiny black nose.

Harry said dismissively, "It's just stuff that's been happening."

"No Weaver's End in that case?"

Harry did not reply.

More firmly, Snape said, "I will allow you such an exception this evening, but not the morrow and not after."

"Fair enough," Harry said. "Good luck tomorrow," he added at Snape's retreat.

"Luck cannot favor me," Snape said.

"I don't believe that," Harry said.

A small, knowing smile transformed Snape's lips. "Remind me sometime to tell you about the Felix Felicis potion and a foolhardy brewer who made the mistake of misusing it."

- 888 -

Harry attended his training in the morning and was given the afternoon off, which he did not think he needed due to a full previous day of helping setup for the wedding, but his afternoon was full of last minute changes to the decorations, like swapping the gold bows for silvery green, and rearranging the placesettings in the dinner tent.

"Thanks, Harry," Candide said with real feeling when he announced things completed. Ruthie gave him a wink, which she did frequently. Candide pulled a watch from her pocket and stared at it the way one may the photo of a sworn enemy. She seemed to remember something and from another pocket, pulled out a charm on a thin chain and held it out to Harry. "Make sure Severus puts that in his pocket."

Harry held the tiny figure up to the bright ceiling. It was a terrier worked in pewter. "What's this?"

"It symbolizes loyalty," Candide said, already absorbed in a long, long list written on narrow parchment.

Pattering on the broad, white tent indicated that the intermittent light rain had chosen to return again.

"That's supposed to be good luck, right?" Candide asked Harry.

"Of course," Harry assured her, knowing no such thing.

"I told her that it was already," Carolyn complained. "She didn't believe me."

"She knows Harry wouldn't lie," Ruthie said, throwing in another wink, which made Harry wish he had simply said he did not know. This made him wonder what is was about weddings that led one to make up nice answers that were not necessarily true as often as he found himself doing.

Candide pulled a rolled parchment from the cluster in her hand and held it out. "Harry, can you mix this together . . . put some in bowls on each table?"

Harry peered at the list, seeing oak moss, larkspur, and carnation oil in a glance. "This is a potion?"

She tapped his arm with the parchment bundle. "You're as bad as Severus. It's a potpourri. The supplies are in the boxes under the table. Bad luck to mix them ahead of time, evil spirits can get into it. Or just pixies, which would be worse. And here are your boutonnieres, make sure Severus gets the rose."

The pattering on the tent grew louder as Harry cleared a table to work at. Rather than risk misplacing the boutonnieres in the midst of all the other boxes of flowers, he pinned both on himself.

"Speaking of luck," Ruthie teased. "Only an accountant would chose a Monday to get married. The guests can better get blotto on a Friday or Saturday, you know."

Sounding like she held her nose, Carolyn countered, "Monday for wealth, Tuesday for health . . . Friday for crosses, Saturday for no luck at all."

Ruthie opined, "You operate on a very short week."

"Wednesday is the best," Carolyn said, "but Candy hates my pointing that out. She'll need the wealth Those who in July to wed, must labor for their daily bread."

Harry resisted shaking his head as he poured white angel wings into little spherical bowls, spilling some because the opening in the top was too small. He pulled his wand to spell them where they belonged, but Candide said, "Dusting the table with petals is fine. Do it to all of them."

The wind played with the clear plastic tent walls, snapping them inward and outward successively. Inside, however, barely a breeze passed through. Shrugging, Harry better spread the spill out to make it look intentional.

Candide disappeared, maids in tow, and Harry turned to find Lupin, in fine robes with a strangely Muggle cut to them, Pamela beside him. They peered about at the decorations. "I expected green," Lupin said, rocking back with his hands in his pockets to stare up at the streamers running to the tent peak. "But I expected more snakes."

Harry placed the last bowl on the last table and adjusted the spilled petals with a practiced flick of his fingers. "Snakes were right out," Harry said, laughing. "Talk about bad luck."

Lupin sniffed the bowl on the nearest table. "Never thought I'd see this day."

Harry preferred not to address such notions after the previous night's dreams. "It's good you could come," he said instead.

"Oh, I wouldn't miss this for . . . all the flower petals in Holland," he finished fancifully.

Others wandered in, shaking raindrops from their dress robes. Harry wandered over to Elizabeth and her mother. Elizabeth said quietly, "I convinced mum that since you're neighbors, we really should come. Not sure we can stay for the party."

"That's all right," Harry assured her, glad to see her.

Elizabeth examined the table-crowded tent and said, "Guess the other tent is for the ceremony."

"Yeah, come on. I should see that everything is set there."

Guests were slowly filling the white beribboned folding chairs. Harry returned McGonagall's dignified wave from a cluster of Hogwart's teachers. Hagrid sat off to the side on one of the trunks the tents had been packed in.

"Hullo, Harry!" he shouted, voice shaking the raindrops in a noisy rush from the tent roof.

"Hi, Hagrid," Harry returned.

When he turned, Harry found himself faced with Shazor and Gretta. Shazor appeared to be sizing up Candide's side of guests. Harry withstood what was certain to be too many firm handshakes that evening and found them seats before the teachers.

When the guests were all seated, including Hermione, who a bit shyly joined the teachers, Harry stood at the back, just outside the main part of the tent, under an overhand with a large flap that allowed in the mist of the rain. Lupin saw him there and slipped out of his row to join him, Pamela ducking to follow.

"Bride is always late," Pamela opined.

"How about the groom?" Harry countered.

Lupin glanced around. "Where's Severus?"

Harry shrugged. "I think he'll show," he offered, finding certainty in that based almost entirely on the ring. He had not seen Snape all afternoon, partly this was necessity so the bride and groom could avoid an unfortuitous meeting, but Harry would feel better if he had glimpsed Snape at least once.

The assembled inside were chatting quietly, showing no restlessness. Harry felt he floated above the trampled grass, or perhaps it was just the way the light came through the tent equally from all sides as though the world itself were aglow. Outside, the quaint glen surrounded them, unobserved.

An Apparition pop! made them both turn to the tent flap but it was not Snape, it was a charcoal smeared little wizard in a smashed top hat, carrying a telescoping bottle-brush broomstick.

"I'm not late, am I?" the man asked, sounding very concerned.

Harry was about to ask who he was, in that instant wondering if the man thought somehow that he was the groom.

Lupin said, "No, just in time. Go on in."

The man half danced his way inside with a little skip and jump and stood at the back. Harry could see his shadow on the rear of the tent, broom standing up beside him like a furry umbrella.

"What was that?" Harry sidled over to Lupin to ask.

He rocked up on his toes. "The chimney sweep, of course. Now we can start."

"Right. Just need a groom."

"You're the best man, you know. If Severus doesn't show you have to take his place."

"I don't believe you," Harry said, despite believing pretty much all the other silly things he had heard the last two days, including the part about the shoe shaped cake that Candide was supposed to get symbolically hit over the head with.

Lupin just grinned.

"Tonks wouldn't like that," Harry said, which caused the Auror to appear from inside.

"Wouldn't like what?" she asked, hooking her arm through Harry's. She wore knee-length pink robes that were longer in the back than front.

Harry raised his eyes from her exposed legs with some effort. "If I had to marry the bride in Severus' stead."

"Oh, that's not true. You're really here to help fight off the bride's family."

"That I'm well aware of," Harry stated tiredly.

"Besides, there is no bride," Tonks pointed out.

"She's around somewhere, getting ready. Severus we're less certain about."

A voice said, "pssst!" from the tent flap. It was Ruthie. "Harry, got a Sickle on you?"

Harry fished in his pocket, but shook his head because he only had a very precise number of Galleons. Lupin held out one. Ruthie pointed and said, "Give it to Harry, then Harry put it in your pocket and take it out again."

Having no good reason to argue the wisdom of that, Harry did so, then walked over and held it out.

"Got anything blue?"

"No," Harry replied. He could see that she stood under a very large pearlescent umbrella, one that would work well for Hagrid. Rain poured off the back edge of it in a waterfall.

"She'll have to use my shoelace then. Don't know why she doesn't want to." She shuffled off in her iridescent blue-green gown to the smaller tent beside the enchanted spring that made the glen such an attractive spot for weddings. At the moment the rain was causing the rock pool to overflow. Harry wondered as she disappeared into the seemingly wardrobe-sized tent whether he should have mentioned that they lacked a groom.

Harry walked back to the inner tent flap and watched Tonks retake her seat beside Shacklebolt. He stared across the heads of the assembled, some leaning together to whisper, others staring at the decorations. The Supreme Mugwump—a worrisomely aged wizard with a silver beard and silver-flecked red hair—sat serenely at the front acting accustomed to this sort of delay. As long as he didn't fall asleep, Harry thought.

When he turned back, the tent flapped opened and Snape appeared, brow surly and dripping water off his hair and the end of his nose.

Lupin strode over and tugged him off to the side, out of view of the guests who were peering back over their shoulders. With quick motions he dried Snape, straightened his robes, and pinned his cloak diagonally across his back, revealing the shiny blue lining. "That's more like it," he admonished.

Snape simply stared at his old enemy and Harry thought that even without Legilimency, Harry could read his thoughts and they were somewhere along the lines of how did it come to this? Snape peered over at Harry and his expression did not change.

"Ready?" Harry asked, as though everything were right on schedule and perfectly expected.

Snape nodded, just once, as if afraid his head might disobey and start swinging side to side instead. Harry unpinned the dill and yellow rose boutonniere from his own robes and pinned it on Snape. He straightened his own white chrysanthemum and lily and took Snape's arm the way he might McGonagall's. Snape arrested his leading him inside and gestured sharply to Lupin, who came closer. "Make certain the shoe-cake melts in the rain, won't you?"

Lupin said, "Consider it mush."

"Thank you," Snape said, seeming like that notion bolstered him.

Harry attempted again to lead him in, and this time he allowed it. The crowd quieted as they made their way. Harry sat him in the front row, alone. He bent to his ear and whispered, "Do make it look less like you're facing the guillotine." To which, Snape relaxed marginally. Harry left him sitting there, and thought things better move ahead without delay from this point.

On the other side, Candide's uncle and father had both stood. Harry thought they were having an nonvocal argument about whether her uncle should give her away as planned, but in the end Farnsworth, Candide's father, gestured for Harry to lead the way back down the aisle. Harry glanced at him following in curiosity.

At the rear, he said, "Changed my mind," quite gruffly.

"All right," Harry said, still in the mode of taking things as they came. The world, through a veil of too little sleep, felt tenuously balanced and he feared tipping it either direction by trying. Fortunately, letting it run along on its own was working out.

The massive umbrella stuck itself halfway through the back flap and Candide appeared, holding her dress up out of the fat droplets clinging to the battered grass.

"We set?" she asked.

Harry nodded and she bit her lip nervously. He was glad he had not worried her about Snape's late appearance. They could all now pretend he had been here all along. Candide bent awkwardly to reach under her broad dress, female hands of support instinctively coming in on each side. She pulled off her shoe and shook it to get the sickle to slide to the heel before putting it back on. To her sister she asked, "How do I look?"

Ruthie pinched her cheek in reply.

"Wish I could see myself," Candide muttered. "After all this effort for luck, this better be the luckiest wedding in history." She sighed and smoothed her dress and shook out the row of lace handkerchiefs sown at the hem. "Go on, Harry. Wave at the musicians to start."

Lupin waggled his eyebrows at Harry and they slipped in together. Harry went all the way to the front and gestured at the quintet and they gamely started sawing at their instruments, transforming the air of the tent into sound.

Harry remembered the trinket as he took up a position beside Snape. He slipped it out and handed it to him. Snape did not put it in his pocket, but held it in his hand and stared down at it, which meant Harry could no longer see his expression through his hair.

Harry glanced over the crowd and found Anita near the back on the end of a row, eyes disconcertingly distant even though they focused on the two of them standing there.

The music changed pace and Harry walked back to meet Ruthie and Carolyn and lead them in to the left as he had been told. The necessity of this and their bright dresses had been explained as a way of confusing evil spirits about whom the bride may be. Harry's suggestion about simply charming the bride against any hexes was not welcomed quite the way he expected.

These preparatory thoughts continued running through his mind as he resumed his place beside Snape. They represented the necessary momentum that would continue to drive events on the proper course, which seemed the only hope.

Everyone stood, including the Mugwump, to greet the bride, who kissed her father on the cheek, further reddening his over-stressed face. The Mugwump smiled serenely at the couple when they arranged themselves and faced him. He pulled out a gold-tipped wand and charmed them both with a tap on the head. Harry could not hear the spell, but he hoped it was something akin to a Mutushorum that would prevent either of them from bolting.

The Mugwump's face was as wizened as tree bark and his hands as quaky as leaves, but his voice carried authority as he addressed the guests and the couple and went on at some length about the point of it all. Harry found his shoulders unclenching with relief. No one spoke up when asked if they knew of any binding spells that should prevent this marriage, even though the Mugwump keenly demanded: "Anyone, anyone?" He then muttered something about preventing exploding grooms before moving on to the vows.

Candide had no trouble with this part, beyond a sniffle or two. Snape on the other hand seemed to require an application of great willpower to repeat what he was told to say. The Mugwump slowed down even, to make sure Snape was following, which only prolonged the agony. Harry closed his eyes. It's not a spell, he thought at Snape. It's just words, promises. They're only as important as you make them. But then it occurred to Harry that maybe Snape was making them very important, hence the pain. Dumbledore's past words floated through his thoughts, saying that Snape took nothing for granted. This certainly would all be easier if you did take it all for granted, he considered of the vows. Have, hold, faithfulness, partnership, friendship, forever . . . there were quite a number of words in there, most all of them a kind of binding.

Harry rubbed his hands together; his fingers were cold. He raised his head when the couple turned to face each other as indicated by the shuffling of a large dress. Snape appeared to have recovered himself partly as he took the ring from the Mugwump, who had charmed it with a few spells to prevent loss, especially through a drain, and to deter theft. As Snape slipped it on Candide's finger, the Mugwump seemed then to recognize the stone because his face left its serene state and entered one of surprise and perhaps covetousness.

That particular ring meant more than forever, Harry considered, and it meant more than the words in any event, and this let him relax completely as the Mugwump pronounced them married.

A pause ensued after the guests shuffled in place in preparation for departing.

"Go on then," the Mugwump prodded. He was bent over more now, perhaps having tired of holding himself up straight against old age. "Why some of you young people have to be told to kiss flummoxes me."

Snape stared at Candide, thinking of the waiting crowd, Harry suspected. He shucked his pinned cloak free and raised it betwixt them and the rest of the room, hiding their heads as he bent in. Harry ducked to fight an urge to burst out laughing.

After they straightened, it was clear that Candide was also laughing. The Mugwump gestured over his head with a swishing motion. "Off with you now."

Yellow flower petals and sweetmeats rained down from tent ceiling in a line to cover the white runner leading out. After a brief adjustment on how their arms should be linked, the two of them strode out, Candide ducking, hand shielding her head.

Harry caught up with them at the rear, where Ruthie's massive umbrella was put to use getting them all to the next tent, which from the outside was only as large as a beach hut.

Ruthie let Lupin take the umbrella to ferry others through the rain. Snape still had Candide's arm linked through his as he stared at the tent full of empty tables. Harry pulled out his wand and one-by-one ignited the rows of tall candles lining the walls and the smaller ones on the tables. The space took on an honestly romantic glow.

Harry joined his guardian and Candide where they stood waiting by the tent flap to greet the guests. "How're you doing, Severus?" he asked.

"The worst is over," Snape stated.

There was not time to address Candide's bemused expression before Shazor and Gretta appeared. Shazor was perfunctory, but Gretta gave hugs down the line. The bride's father, despite changing his mind about giving her away, bowed rather than shake hands with Snape, although he did so with Harry. The teachers came through next. McGonagall greeted them all with grace, but her crooked smile hinted at words too pointed for the moment. It was Trelawney who first requested one of the handkerchiefs off the dress hem to "carry off some good fortune." A few others, mostly children, did this as well, as did the Mugwump himself, who stashed it neatly in his breast pocket and fluffed the points where they stuck out. Harry needed nudging to be reminded he had to pay. He fished the brand new white leather drawstring purse containing fifteen Galleons out of his pocket and caught up with the curve-backed Mugwump where he stood off to the side, hat in his hand, deciding where to sit.

"Ah, young man," he said wistfully, weighing the purse before putting it away with a spell that did not involve going to his pocket. Harry believed that closed the conversation and started to turn, to make his way back to the greeting line when the old wizard said, "I remember you from Albus' funeral, but we did not get a chance to be introduced."

Harry said some words about that as he remembered that day without really wanting to.

The Mugwump looked him over and said, "Ah, like all young people, you have things to be doing. Go on then."

Most of the guests were inside or had made their goodbyes—like Elizabeth and her mother—when Anita slipped in with the last group. She and Snape greeted each other perfunctorily before she introduced herself to Candide. Candide insisted that she stay for the party, which she agreed to do and then headed for a seat without another word. Harry hoped all this self-control continued even after the many cases of prosecco stacked in the corners began to flow.

Harry took his seat between Snape and Shazor at the long narrow head table after everyone else had situated themselves at the round tables. The caterer's elves then did their magic and bowls of sugared almonds appeared as well as bread. One might have thought the wedding was fifteen hours rather than fifteen minutes the way the guests tore into these tokens.

Candide leaned over and asked in concern, "What happened to the shoe cake? I just remembered we skipped breaking that over my head."

"It got wet," Harry said.

"Oh. All right. Shame. It's good luck."

Harry leaned over farther. "Do you really believe that much in luck?" he asked in concern. The obsessive preparations had maxxed out his tolerance for irrational behavior.

"Do you really believe in prophecies?" she returned.

Harry opened his mouth and closed it again. Snape said, "She's got you there."

Prosecco was poured for all but the wedding couple, who instead jointly poured mead into a beaten up old chalice that sported the selective gleam indicative of a recent desperate polishing. Candide took a small sip from this while the guests all started in on their own drinks. Snape followed by more than making up for her dainty helping.

Harry had his crystal goblet, which he was certain he had not emptied so far, topped up by a passing elf and then resisted drinking more of it immediately. When the crowd settled down, he stood, which finished quieting everyone except for some chairs squeaking when rotated for a better view.

"Thank you all for coming," Harry said.

"Wouldn't have missed it," Mr. Weasley's voice floated over the assembled crowd.

The crowd chuckled faintly in agreement. Harry said, "I was warned I had to say something and I've made a lot of speeches before, some I've even written ahead of time, but this one feels more important than the others and I did not figure out quite what I wanted to say until now." More eyes in the room turned and fixed on him as he spoke and the interest level rose. "This is really big day," he said, unwillingly remembering that he himself had been the first major roadblock to the two of them being together.

"Some people just have families . . . and some of us have to put them together." He glanced at Candide and worried that he was overwhelming her already given the shine on her eyes. The pattering rain above faded, allowing him to speak closer to normal.

"We're stronger as a unit than as individuals. But we have to give up something to be a unit and that's what today's about, pledging that the unit will be more important in the future."

He glanced at Snape, who was fixated on the chalice set halfway between him and Candide.

"Most of you who know Severus from before are probably pretty surprised to be here right now."

While the crowd laughed lightly, Snape made a motion, but it was just to smooth his eyebrow.

"But I'm not actually surprised. Well, I probably was at first, but not after I thought it over." In his mind, Harry considered that if Snape could keep Voldemort happy, that he ought to be able to keep anyone happy, should he chose to. "He's very good at this father thing, so I'm certain he can manage the husband one too, if he has a mind to succeed at it." To Candide, he added, "Don't worry, he wouldn't get into this unless he intended to take it seriously. I don't see anything but a successful future for both of you together and it is wonderful that you're brave enough to give it a go."

Harry had let his glass fall almost back to the table. He raised it again. "So, a toast to the triumph of hope over . . . better sense."

"Hear, hear," various guests uttered and silence fell as everyone drank.

A knife clanged on a plate as McGonagall stood up two tables away. "If I may add a few words?"

Harry waved that she certainly could and resumed his seat. Under his breath and behind his hand, Snape uttered, "Why did you tell her 'yes'?"

Harry chuckled. "It'll all be over soon."

Snape drank another sip of mead as McGonagall began. "It was a lovely ceremony. I am quite happy for Severus as well as pleasantly surprised that he has found someone compatible."

Harry leaned closer to better hear Snape say, "I must be slipping. Usually I know what she's getting even for."

Harry said, "You are slipping, but we like you better that way."

This generated a sharp glance. McGonagall went on, cutting off the follow-on glare.

"I've known Severus for, oh, upwards of twenty-six years, first as a student and then as a sometimes adversarial colleague. We've been through some very difficult times and I'll second Harry's contention that we are stronger as a unit because it was the unit of many of you here, bound to Albus Dumbledore, that is the only reason so many can be here today to enjoy this lovely party."

She turned her dark green robed self to better address the room rather than the head table. "Severus doesn't always think the best of people, which can make him a little difficult to get along with, but there is no one you would rather have guarding your back." She turned again and raised her glass, which glittered in the now dominating candlelight. "I wish the three of you prosperity. I wish you peace, for what it's worth, but knowing two of you as I do, I'm not sure my wishes are going to have any effect. I believe Ms. Breakstone had a proper preview of what she has got herself into before coming today. She is presumably ready for a life of adventure and she is in good hands. So I wish her, especially, but all three of you, the best of luck."

"I can top that," Ruthie said while glasses were being refilled. She stood on Candide's other side, sizing them all up while the guests adjusted. Candide dropped her head and shook it faintly. Snape handed her the mead cup from which she took another very small sip.

Ruthie took in the room next with her skilled eye, gauging the audience. "My sister, Candy. Always did everything just right. Perfectly. Perfect grades. Perfectly neat room. Mum and dad's favorite. Used to drive me bonko when we were kids. Years and years of this never living up to my sister." She indicated Snape with a movement of her glass. "I don't know where you found this one, but you've more than made up for everything." Ruthie leaned down and asked, "Where did you find him, anyway?"

Candide had to clear her throat to be heard. "Hogsmeade."

"Hog's Head?" Ruthie echoed loudly, to a few chuckles.

"HogsMEADE," Candide repeated.

Ruthie shrugged as if there was little difference or she did not believe her. "Well, I like this bloke, but others are needing more time to get to know him. We'll get there, I'm sure," she said amiably. "He's trouble, I can tell, but Candy needs balancing out for the rest of our sake. Between the two of them we've got one tolerable person here."

Ruthie leaned on the table with one broad hand, straining it, judging by the creaks. "You know how you are supposed to tell embarrassing anecdotes about one or the other of the couple when you do these toasts?" she asked the assembled. "Well, trouble is, Candy doesn't have any to tell. I would know, I've been her sister her whole life. Marrying this bloke is the only mortifying thing she's ever done and you all already know about it . . . because you're here. Takes the fun out of telling it to you."

Harry and Candide turned at the same time to check that Snape was still all right. Ruthie, with a crooked grin turned too.

Snape said, "Clearly, you don't know me very well."

Harry grinned at the implied threat.

Ruthie returned, "We have loads of time now to get to know each other. You have a house-elf . . . we, or I will at least, be over every Sunday." This generated more laughs.

"I look forward to it," Snape said easily, eyes keen.

Ruthie laughed the most of all. "If anyone had told me I'd inherit a brother-in-law who teaches dark magic . . . 'scuse me, Defense against dark magic and that I'd inherit Harry Potter as a nephew . . . pshew, I think I'd have suggested they seriously consider having themselves measured up for the proverbial tight white robes that buckle in the back." She raised her glass which triggered Harry to release the breath he held. "But welcome to our family. It's a very boring family where nothing much happens, and I'm very grateful for your livening it up."

With that, conversations broke out at every table and the food appeared. Everyone tucked into their plates and the conversation noise rose and fell pleasantly. Harry kept tabs on the bride and groom but they behaved as though this was just another ordinary dinner, as did most of the guests.

Long after the tables had been pushed aside and the makeshift wooden floor thinned out of eager dancers. Candide returned to the head table.

"All right, I've danced with every other male; it's your turn now."

Snape, who was sitting back from the table, hand on a goblet, said, "You danced with Hagrid?"

Candide propped her hands on her hips, an action accentuated by her dress rustling. "Yes. How could you have missed that? He is easy to dance with, I'll admit . . . you put both feet on one of his and he does the dancing."

"You have not danced with Harry, here."

Candide stared at Harry. "Oh, you're right. Come on, Harry."

Harry, who had just sat back down after dancing with Anita a second time, pushed himself back to his feet.

Over beside the quintet, Harry asked her, "Glad now that it's almost over?"

"No, now I'm not."

Harry kept one eye on the head table where Shazor and Farnsworth were smoking cigars and chatting with the groom. "Everyone behaved themselves," Harry commented as they circled.

"Yes, they did. Hey, you're not a bad dancer."

"Hm?" Harry asked, watching as Farnsworth grew animated discussing something.

"I said, your girlfriend is lucky you are such a good dancer."

Harry glanced over at Tonks who had only danced with him once on the theory that flaunting themselves in front of both Shacklebolt and Mr. Weasley was not a good idea.

"You're very distracted," she said, more concerned than criticizing.

"I feel like I should keep an eye on things," he explained, finally turning to her. Her eye makeup had spread, heavily accenting her eyes. Her spell-fixed hair was still exactly the same.

She said, "Your little speech was nice. I think that was the right way to explain it to Severus."

"Was it that obvious I was talking to him?" Harry asked as they passed Hermione and Hagrid with a shuffle of steps to avoid serious injury.

"I don't think so. It was fine."

The song ended and Harry took her be-ringed hand and led her back to the head table. "All yours," he announced.

Snape, after a brief hesitation, stood and wove his way through the blue smoke of his neighbors to come around the table. A tango started up. When the two of them reached the raised interlocked platform, Snape waved the musicians to a halt and asked for something slow. The bride and groom proceeded to, not so much dance as, turn slowly in one corner of the dance floor.

A green robe cut into Harry's vision and McGonagall and Hagrid took up seats nearby, Hagrid on the trunk which he dragged over for that purpose. From where Harry sat above him, he could see two broken ivory combs stuck in his wiry hair. The three of them stared across the room at Snape and Candide dancing.

Hagrid said, "Aye, Dumbledore'd've like ter seen this."

McGonagall nodded sagely.

Hermione came over, empty goblet in hand, which she set down on the table beside some others abandoned there. "I should go," she said, slightly slurred. "Lots of arranging things for the term . . . Oh, hello Headmistress."

"Hermione," McGonagall greeted her, wearing that sly smile again.

Harry stood and saw his friend out. Hermione gave him a long hug before she Apparated away. Tonks was behind him when he turned back to the tent, Shacklebolt at her side. "We have to go too. Call."

Harry shook her hand with a professional air, feeling a little neglected by her rule for the evening and wanting to make a point. She frowned and they disappeared as well. Harry remained standing in the crystal starlight. The tent fabric glowed richly with candlelight as though with the size charming, the light concentrated as it escaped to the outside.

Footsteps made Harry turn and he was surprised to find Moody standing there, wearing dress robes, his hair slicked back. Harry wondered how long he had been around and how else he had been disguised if he had been around. A mustache would not have sufficed given his distinctive posture.

"Enjoying the party?" Harry asked with no friendliness.

"The whole rest of the Order was invited," Moody pointed out. "It was a good chance to listen in on what everyone is doing."

Harry decided to simply ignore him and moved to re-enter the tent. Moody halted him with: "I want to know what you think you're up to."

Harry rotated back slowly. "I'm at a wedding . . . a very important one that I don't feel like wasting time talking to you during."

Moody's magical eye examined Harry. "Someone's been tracking me, I've figured out," he said. "And I don't like it. Reminds me of the old days a bit too much."

Inside, the music changed tunes, picking up the pace slightly which made it merge better with the bubbling water of the spring. "If you think it's me . . . believe me, I've had enough of you. I would hardly seek out more of you." Harry started to walk away and stopped long enough to say. "Only a handful of people know you're alive. How hard could it be to figure out who it is?"

Moody grunted. "My figuring exactly, so that's why I'm here, asking you. I thought you the most likely to manage it without my catching you at it, seeing as how you have certain, shall we say, skills in this area."

"Well, it's not me," Harry said with feeling and slipped back inside the tent.

Harry's annoyed mood eased the moment he stepped inside the flickering, candlelit space. He slid back along the head table to the chair beside Candide's. Snape wasn't at the table; he appeared to be dancing with McGonagall. Harry squinted across the tent at this, stunned.

"She insisted on getting a turn," Candide said, sounding amused.

"Amazing," Harry uttered. He pushed aside a few stray goblets and a scattering of colorful dried fruit from the cake and put his chin down on his hand to watch the dance floor without having to hold up his head.

Candide scooted her chair closer and put an arm around him. "Thanks for letting me in, Harry."

Acute embarrassment made him wince. He had to lift his head to talk. "Sorry about that."

"What? Oh, that's not what I meant." She laughed lightly. "I meant the way you two had such a language of your own. I needed some translation and eventually got it."

"Oh," Harry uttered, partly relieved by her explanation. His eyes were getting as heavy as his head. The caterer's elves had not been around for the last hour, which was a shame as Harry could use that coffee now that he had turned down earlier with the cake. Candide's parents were dancing as well as Ruthie and Hagrid and Trelawney with an elderly member of the Order. Anita sat in the corner talking to Professor Sinistra, who nodded frequently as Anita gestured. Shazor and Gretta occupied a table about as far away as possible, near the door flaps. Harry considered that if this evening could work out, then pretty much anything could.

Candide's arm still rested reassuringly over Harry's back. She did not seem so much a mother, he mused, as an extension of his adoptive father. Or, if Ruthie's contention that the two of them formed a different whole was correct, she completed Snape, which was a comfortable thought.

The warm honeycomb atmosphere exuded by the candles overlaid the wet fresh leafiness of the glen. The air and the rhythmic music lulled Harry's eyes closed. He tugged off his glasses, intending just to rest his eyes a minute by pressing them against his arm.

He must have dozed because he woke with a small jerk when hands came down on his shoulders. A voice, Snape's, somewhere behind his left ear said, "It IS late."

Harry sat straight and rubbed his eyes. The music still played but there were just two couples on the dance floor and the tables had cleared further. Snape pressed Harry's hair back, giving it a tug as though to be sure he had his attention.

"You did not have so much to drink, did you?" he asked.

"No," Harry said, wiping his glasses before replacing him. "And look who's talking."

Snape's hand came down again on his shoulder, but he did not have a response. Across the room, Harry became aware of a stereo vision of Anita on one side and Shazor on the other, both watching them with expressions that were difficult to decode. Harry pretended not to notice. Unexpectedly, Snape brushed his hair back again, making Harry wonder if he was making some kind of point. If so, Harry was glad for it.

Anita approached as did McGonagall with Richard and the remaining teachers in tow. McGonagall said, "I believe it is time for us all to do as Harry is trying to, as lovely as the evening has been."

Anita, hands clasped before her almost placatingly, said, "Perhaps time to take your wife and son home, Severus. It IS nearly 2:00."

Harry did not want to come down in support of the critical side of her twisted, half-acknowledging statement, nevertheless silently agreed due to his training the next day. "Who's cleaning up?" Harry asked.

"The caterer's elves will return at dawn," Candide supplied.

The musicians ended the song and began to pack up their music stands and instruments. After the teachers moved on, Shazor and Gretta approached as well as Candide's parents, Anita stepped aside but did not retreat. Ruthie rocked on her toes behind them all. The tension level rose. Harry would have stood, but Snape's hand was still firmly on his shoulder.

Gretta broke the silence with, "Lovely wedding, my dear," she said to Candide. Other similar murmurs were offered and the group, with last good wishes, moved on out of the tent, leaving the three of them there with just the musicians who were stacking their large instrument boxes in a considerably small trunk, which had been hovered beside their platform.

"They all behaved well," Harry said. A thought then occurred to his tired brain. He asked Snape, "You didn't potion the prosecco or something?"

Vaguely insulted sounding, Snape said, "No."

Harry stood finally. "Not that I care . . ." And at that late moment he certainly did not. "I just wondered if we could expect them to behave next time."

Snape said, "Unlikely" at the same instant Candide said, "I doubt it."

Eyes heavy, Harry peered back and forth between them. He felt dizzily pleased with the day. Eyes smiling at Snape he said, "Shall we go home?"

Snape bowed in place of a nod and Candide jumped over beside him, saying, "I have to side-along. It's bad luck for the bride to Apparate herself to her new house." With much movement of the ever resilient dress, she tugged off her left shoe, dumped the sickle onto the table and tossed the shoe aside. "Okay, all good."

They both stared at here. Harry said, "Well, we wouldn't want to break the streak we have going today."

Snape took her arm with accentuated formality and the three of them Disapparated.

A/N: Sorry, got to get to sleep to get on a plane for home tomorrow. No time even for a preview. I'll add one when I get home.

Chapter 10: A Darker Place
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Chapter 10 — A Darker Place

Quiet settled over the house in Shrewsthorpe as Snape, divested of his shimmering blue-lined dress cloak, sat on the bed to unwind the long laces of the dress boots he wore. A shush-shush followed Candide as she strode to her wardrobe and considered herself in the narrow mirror inside the door.

"Dress worked out well," she said in a fatigue-tinged voice. "Pearl was a good choice."

"An overly sedulous decision for something to be worn once."

She shrugged, smiling faintly. "I need help getting out of it. Bad luck to use a spell."

"Ah," Snape uttered. "So, a well-designed garment you are saying." He stood with deliberate movements and stopped behind her, studying the fifty or so hooks and eyelets lining her spine. "This would constitute cruelty under the right circumstances."

She laughed lightly. "You would object to that?" she asked doubtfully.

He peered at her in the mirror. "You have a bit more of your sister in you than you let on. Don't know where you hid her . . . Certainly no room in this dress." He started in on the eyelets, from the top.

"So," she began. "While I have your attention . . ."

"Less of it than you might imagine . . ." he came back, frowning at getting his fingers behind the fabric to gain enough slack to continue unhooking beyond the looser high neck.

She lifted her ring hand and stared at it before dropping it back to her side. "You said, I do, but there are other things you've never said."

This garnered a glare in reflection. "And?"

"Hm," she said, pushing her unruly hair back. The spell holding it in place finally had worn off. "I'm curious," she said as he made it beyond the tough section where the fabric was pulled taut by her shoulder blades and sped up somewhat. She moved a quarter-turn to see him at least a little in the mirror. "Have you ever told Harry that you love him?"

His voice was much closer to stern as he replied, "You aren't in a competition with Harry."

"I know that. I wouldn't have even tried if I was," she admitted.

The gained only a disturbed shake of Snape's head. More eyelets were set free. Snape said, "To answer your question, however, the answer is 'yes'."

"Oh, good," she said. "He deserves to hear it, and there is hope."

More shaking of Snape's veiling hair ensued. More than half the eyelets were undone now, revealing the fine lace of an undergarment that almost no one would see.

"What did he say in response?" Candide asked. "Or am I prying?"

Snape huffed inaudibly. "Clearly the topic requires resolution as much the dress does, so I suppose not. But in answer to that question, he said nothing and when I myself pried, he said it was obvious. Harry does not care about words nearly as much . . ." He paused for a tough eyelet that kept re-hooking as though cursed to do so. It gave in only when it was uprooted. "He cares about actions. He cares solely that someone has faith and trust in him, and at least makes an attempt at understanding."

"He likes to be taken care of, doesn't he?"

"Not really." Less than ten eyelets remained at the edges of a decorative flap at the bottom edge of the bodice, which an oversized fake button appeared to hold closed.

"He doesn't complain that you check on him at night."

"That is a glaring exception. It is the singular thing he needed most as a child that he did not have." These last few eyelets made for quick work. "There." He stared at her in the mirror. "Why are we discussing Harry?"

Despite the topic being unimportant for the following hour, after the previous nights' experience of finding Harry sleeping in the window, Snape snuck away just at dawn to check on him.

Harry was sleeping only lightly and turned when the door opened. In support of Snape's earlier assertion, Harry sat up, eyes grateful for the company.

"Did you sleep at all?" Snape asked.

"Did you?" Harry returned coyly.

"I'm not answering that," he asserted firmly. "I only ask because I wondered if you had the same dream again?"

"What dream?"

"The one last night that sent you keep vigil at the window in a fit of uncomfortable nocturnal arrangement."

"Oh, no. It was a dream, anyhow. Nothing more."

"Still doubting the strength of the fabric of reality?" Snape asked, slightly mocking.

Harry frowned and crossed his legs under the covers. "Maybe."

Lecturing, Snape said, "To damage reality without possessing a time-turner would require sorcery of unimagined power. You are the veritable ant in the realm of what would be necessary to even so much as tweak the thread of existence. To break and reweave it is inconceivable. You grossly flatter yourself by even worrying about it."

"What happened to me, then?" Harry demanded.

Snape's expression grew less fierce. "I'll concede that I do not know."

"Doesn't that bother you?"

"Immensely. But let me worry about your disturbed visions of my life, all right?"

Harry sighed and rubbed his aching eyes. "All right."

- 888 -

That evening, after a sleepy-eyed day where training felt more like drudgery than it should, Harry settled in with his books across from Snape, who worked at filling in fancy parchment forms bearing the Hogwart's seal on the top of each.

"Hogwarts stuff?" Harry asked. "Lupin can't do that?"

Snape pulled his sleeve out of the way and considered what he had just written while it dried. "Unless I wish to conceded my position fully to Remus, I feel I should do the official paperwork. I also should make my presence felt at the Welcoming Feast as well as several staff meetings over the next week."

Harry considered how each year the students took early key impressions away from examining the teachers at the feast. "Good idea."

Candide arrived home just as Harry's stomach complained about wanting dinner. "Sorry I'm late," she said, setting a teetering stack of files on the sideboard. Dinner appeared shortly after she sat down. She jumped up again and fetched down the chalice used at the wedding and poured mead into it. She took a sip from it and set it before Snape's plate.

"It's the honeymoon," she explained to Harry's questioning look.

"I thought that was supposed to be a holiday of sorts," he said.

"That kind will have to wait," she said. "The Canaries or something would be nice. It's really getting into the busy season at work now and Severus won't have another break until Christmas."

When the dinner dishes disappeared, they all settled into their respective work.

This routine continued the rest of the week. In the late afternoon after training, Harry only joined his friends at a pub briefly if he did at all. Ron teased him about this one evening, but Harry just shrugged, knowing that Ron, with his constant overdose of family, could not appreciate Harry's wanting to capture this last two solid weeks of it.

- 888 -

Hogwarts' stone walls exuded a warm mustiness from summer's disuse. In an office on the fourth floor, overlooking the courtyard and the keep, Hermione blew her hair out of her eyes and pondered how best to arrange the next trunk of books. Unlike the two bookshelves full that occupied the office when she arrived, hers spanned a diverse collection of topics and it seemed a shame to disturb the lived-in organization of the dog-earred, old books with her own disparate and sometimes un-read ones.

She was just considering where to obtain another set of shelves to keep things completely separate when she realized the time, only by the accident of having a post owl arrive with the afternoon edition of the Prophet.

Hermione stared at the clock, brain unable to comprehend that she was supposed to be elsewhere just at that twitchy movement of the minute hand that landed it straight up. She scrambled for her new gold-edged notebook, pens, ran back for an ink bottle, exchanged that for a Never-out quill, grabbed all of it up instead along with the attaché her mother had bought her upon getting her job at the solicitors', and ran out of her office.

The stairways down never contained so many steps as they did this trip, but she slowed on the last set to catch her breath, deciding that being later yet for her first staff meeting would be worse than showing up breathless and clearly at the tail end of an arduous run.

With one last deep breath and a quick finger brush of her hair, she stepped out of the Entrance Hall and into the staff room. The teachers, in all their varied colors and sizes, were standing around the long table, chatting, catching up on personal events from the summer. Hermione breathed out, heart still running fast.

McGonagall turned casually from speaking with Professor Sprout as Hermione placed her things out on the table, trying to ignore what she was certain was a borderline sneering amusement from Professor Snape, who stood off the corner of the table, facing Professor Vector as though mid-conversation.

"Are you getting settled in, Hermione?" McGonagall gallantly asked.

Hermione relaxed, being on time was not a test, it turned out. "Working on it, Professor. Lots of books to unpack still. Oh, where do I get some additional shelves?" she asked before McGonagall could turn away again. She thought this an excellent question, given the implication of it.

"Just ask Mr. Filch. He will come install them."

Hermione had heard about the new Filch. "Right," she managed to answer anyway. This one may actually be a test, she decided.

Hermione took a seat as the others, on some unseen cue, did so. Across the table Trelawney blinked her amplified eyes at her as though wondering why she was there. Hermione opened her lovely new gold-leaf notebook with an audible crack of the leather spine and listened as changes in marking and house points policies were considered.

At the end of the congenial meeting, McGonagall waved Hermione over to her side. "Take a seat, Hermione," she said as Snape glided over to stand on the headmistress' other side. He preferred to stand and glare down, it seemed, because he remained standing as McGonagall continued and the room cleared out.

"This institution has a program for new teachers who . . . may require it. You are a sharp young woman, Hermione dear, but brains alone does not a teacher make. I am therefore assigning you a mentor to assist you. Severus has agreed to take the first round of mentoring.

Hermione glanced up at him, and then quickly down again before considering in private that for most of her school years, he had been her least-favorite teacher, although, she reconsidered, that had been based on a personal dislike, rather than a professional one. She composed her thoughts toward the future before looking up again. His eyes narrowed with a twitch before appearing grudging.

McGonagall went on, "You will report to Severus weekly to discuss how your classes are going as well as grading criteria, problem students, detention policy, etc." She stacked her notes together as she spoke and finished by taking off her glasses. "Any questions?"

"No, Minerva," Hermione managed to say with great effort, finding her first name far too casual for taste. "I'm excited to get started."

- 888 -

It was near the end of his rare normal family time when Harry left early for training in an attempt to catch Mr. Weasley before he got too busy. He found their department head in his office, reading the Weekly Snitch, the Ministry's gossip and sport's score newsletter.

"Can I talk to you, sir?" Harry asked.

Mr. Weasley put his feet down and sat straight, prompting a brush painted to resemble a colorful toy soldier to sweep off the edge of the desk where his shoes had been. Harry glanced back down the corridor to check that no one approached before taking a seat.

"It's like this, Mr. Weasley," Harry began. "I . . . have a bad feeling about Percy-"

"What's he done?" Mr. Weasley asked, perhaps sharply.

"Well," Harry hesitated. There wasn't all that much he had any proof of, really. Mostly just that he found him unsavory and with a bad habit of acting suspicious. "I think he's using Legilimency . . . around the Ministry when perhaps it isn't appropriate."

Mr. Weasley had picked up a ball point pen and was clicking the button on the end repeatedly. "As a Legilimens yourself, you would notice that, I suppose."

"Yes, sir."

The pen clicking stopped while he asked, "You aren't guilty of that yourself?"

Harry spoke slowly as he said, "I'm very careful to avoid it sir."

Mr. Weasley leaned over to reach into the farther file drawer so his voice was strained as he said, "Not always, it turns out." He pulled out a sheet and held it out so Harry could read it. "That's a complaint filed with us from a Mr. DeBenedictus." He pulled it back and scanned it. "I think it may be the first time ever someone has managed to fill this form out correctly. That alone would make him a bad enemy."

Harry bit his top lip. "I caught Percy using the skill on you, sir. And when I called him on it, he blushed and backed down, so I'm quite certain he was doing so."

Mr. Weasley reddened slightly and straightened the files on his desk. "I don't know why he would bother. He could ask me whatever he wishes."

Harry regrouped. At least his boss was now warned. "There just have been so many suspicious coincidences with him."

The pen clicking resumed. "That's also cauldron-calling, Harry."

"It's what?"

Speaking more slowly, Mr. Weasley explained, "The pot calling the cauldron black."

"Oh," Harry said.

Mr. Weasley held up the little plastic pen. "Lovely little thing, isn't it. Sucks itself inside so it doesn't write on things when you don't want it to." He put the pen down. "It's clear, Harry, that you don't like Percy, and certainly he's given you reason not to, but I'm not certain what you want me to do." When Harry hesitated answering he suggested, "Do you want to file one of these complaints against him? It will probably be dealt with in the same manner as this one, which was that all the senior staff signed off on it and it went in a drawer. But you may do so, if you have some kind of direct harm to report and I'm afraid personal lives do not count for much."

"I don't have any . . . direct harm," Harry said, frustrated by these circles. "I just feel justifiably suspicious and I thought I should say something. I've been told to work though the system and I'm trying to do that."

This scored, Harry determined, when Mr. Weasley's posture loosened. "All right, Harry. Good. If there's anything to be done, it will be handled. You're going to be late for training."

Harry thanked him and stood, feeling utterly unsatisfied, but having nothing left to say.

After training, Tonks found him in the dressing room and Harry waved his slow fellows out so he could talk to her.

"Feel like going out?" she asked. "I'm off."

"It's Severus' second to last night home, but sure, a quick drink maybe."

Rather than discuss anything interesting, Harry found himself complaining about Percy as they shared a pint.

"I agree he shouldn't be using Legilimency on Arthur," Tonks said after Harry related his conversation.

"You believe me that he is?" Harry asked.

"Of course. I trust you can judge that," she insisted, sensing that Harry needed reassurance. Her violet hair stood out from her head in all directions today. "I can only do the barest Occlusion. But it's not suspicious that he can do that; all Department of Mysteries staff can Occlude their thoughts completely or they wouldn't be allowed to work there. Many people learn Legilimency at the same time they learn that."

Harry, for whom that was true, was forced to concede that. "Something about him still bothers me. I wonder what he's up to?"

Tonks shrugged. "Can you get away tonight?"

Harry could not imagine himself more torn by a question from her.

"Come on," she said, "you said yourself Severus is going to be home more weekends as long as Remus is fit . . . moon-permitting."

"After dinner, then," Harry said, and the core of him thanked him for that decision by changing from knotted up to happily anticipating.

- 888 -

Two days later as Snape stood beside the mantel with a small trunk at his feet, he glanced between the two of them with a hint of dismay as they hovered nearby to see him off. "I will be returning in less than two weekends. And will be home most weekends after. You look like the bon voyage committee for the Lusitania."

Harry ducked his head to hide his laugh. Snape stepped in his direction and came almost nose to nose with him.

"Be careful. Stay out of trouble." He started to turn away and stopped to say, with a point of a long finger. "Keep me informed."

"Yes, sir," Harry said, finding odd comfort in being pre-scolded, but also somewhat lacking in decent warmth.

Snape relented just a bit and patted the side of his arm. He stopped before Candide and when she stood up on her toes and parted her lips, he gave her a kiss that went on long enough Harry felt the need to glance away, and even, eventually, clear his throat.
After the flare of the Floo network died down, Candide smacked her lips and said, "I'll have to tell the Weasley twins the lipstick really works and thank them as well. They said I could offer the "ultimate" test."

"What?" Harry uttered, bordering on bending over on laughter.

She pulled a little gold lipstick from her pocket and held it up. Lip-Locker Luscious Red ~ Guaranteed longer kisses.

"Do not let Severus see that," Harry said, grinning.

"Oh, don't I know it."

- 888 -

Training got a bit easier with Tridant in the mix since they were splitting their time between first-year spells for him and second-year spells for the rest of them. This new routine gave him time to catch up and feel he could stay caught up. And the quiet evenings with just him and Candide at home left him little distraction from even doing some old reviewing.

Harry began carrying some of his older books to follow along in while Tridant received his lessons. Harry found them surprisingly easy to understand now that he had far surpassed them. This made his center glow warm with a sense of accomplishment. It unfortunately made his book bag rather heavy and he was adjusting the straps of it, slow to leave the changing room, when he heard an unusually large group of footsteps pass by in the corridor. Harry left his bag and went to the door and just pushed it open a crack using his toe.

Fudge's voice could be heard echoing back down the corridor and, through the gap, the former minister could be seen standing outside the tea room with a large group. He was saying, "Well, inter-departmental cooperation was of course one of my initiatives as well, and it's good to see Madam Bones continuing it. We should hold these meetings regularly, not just when there is a crisis afoot."

Harry shifted his head side to side and recognized Percy followed by Ogden entering the tea room along with a few others he did not recognize. Mr. Weasley was the last inside and he closed the door. Harry stood thinking a minute before scooping up his book bag and making a dash for the stairs.

More overly pompous voices halted Harry in the corridor outside the Minister of Magic's outer office. Harry waited around the corner out of sight while a Portuguese dignitary and his entourage made some extraordinarily drawn out goodbyes before finally departing. When the noise of the lift made it clear they has slid out of view at the far end, Harry slipped around to Bone's office.

Belinda was straightening up stacks of brochures on topics of wizard tourism and economic development. Other staff members were holding a debriefing of sorts. They glanced up at Harry and away again, ignoring him. Harry slipped over to Belinda.


"Oh! Hi, Harry," she sounded at least vaguely pleased to see him.

Harry could not help but suspect she knew something and simply was not saying. "Can I talk to you . . . er, this evening?" When her shoulders twitched, he said, "Your flat at say 7:00 o'clock."

She nodded, shoulder-length hair falling into her face so he could not read her expression. Harry thanked her sincerely, generating a faint blush in her ears and more interested glances from the others in the office, so he left.

Harry would have liked to have bided his time at Hermione's flat, but since she was even farther away than going home, he tried Vineet's flat instead. When the Indian came to the door, he registered no surprise at seeing Harry there in the corridor.

"Hope you don't mind if I call unannounced," Harry said.

Vineet gestured that he should enter without changing his distant demeanor. Harry stepped inside the now sparsely furnished flat and realized that in the process of worrying about Tridant adjusting, he had lost track of his usually resilient colleague.

"How are you doing, Vishnu?" Harry came out and asked for lack of any better tactic. It seemed clear from the empty rooms that Nandi had made a permanent move back to the home country.

Vineet tilted his head to the side, a gesture Harry was familiar with from another source.

Vineet's Adam's apple bounced once. "Would you like something?" he asked.

"Whatever you have," Harry said, and followed his fellow into the kitchen.

A stack of letters and other more official looking papers dominated the table, weighted down with half-globes of glass. Harry could not read any of these since they were covered in a script that resembled rows of dangling banners.

Harry waited until they were both settled into tea and biscuits before he asked, "Are you getting a divorce?" He held his breath while he waited for the answer, afraid he had stepped over some line.

"It is difficult," Vineet replied, expression unwavering. Harry wished he would show some disturbance; it unnerved him that he did not.

"I don't mean to pry . . . but I'm a bit worried about you," Harry admitted, trying to pry under that unmoving façade.

The façade shifted all right. It grew even more remote. "You have far more important things to concern yourself, I am certain."

"Not at the moment," Harry said. He sipped his tea since he had ignored it so far. "There hasn't been another prophecy that I don't know about, is there?" he had to ask.

"No. I would prefer that there were."

"Oh," Harry said. "We should hook you up with Trelawney more often then. Get a prophecy arranged for you."

Vineet stared at him, which was an improvement over him staring past him. "You are mocking me." He sounded on the verge of peeved.

"Only to get through to you," Harry pointed out, taking another sip of tea to seem more relaxed than he really was. "And it worked."

Peeved turned to annoyed, and Vineet dropped his gaze to stare down at the biscuit on his saucer. Harry considered that Vineet had been left to himself what with Hermione starting at Hogwarts on top of his wife leaving. Harry certainly knew too well what that felt like.

"I'm not very good at this," Harry admitted. "But rather than bounce back, you've just withdrawn. I don't mean to be a busy-body, but I can't sit by and let you sulk any longer."

This drew his fellow's gaze back up again and this time he seemed present and accounted for, bolstering Harry. "Fill me in, okay . . . it's hard for you to divorce?"


It hurt to pry so much, but it was the next logical question. "But you want to?"

Vineet started to reply, opened his mouth, even, but he hesitated, caught in thought. "I don't want the necessity of it. It brings ignominy upon my family, as well being a personal failure." Making this statement returned him to withdrawn.

"So, what does your mother say?"

"She has begun to side with Nandi, perhaps because of proximity to her arguments."

"Do you want to go home?" Harry asked. "You aren't here because you think I expect it or something? I mean, I certainly like having you as a colleague, I owe you my life, but I just want to make sure you don't feel you are still under some obligation related to me." Harry frowned, that had not come out right. "I remember you saying you came because of me, but if you need to be elsewhere, don't let me stand in the way of that."

Vineet's gaze had returned to the present. "There is nothing for me there."

"Good. I mean, I like having you around."

Harry had the sense that if he wasn't already so grim, Vineet may have smiled at least faintly.

Vineet finally sipped his tea, expressed surprise that it was cold, tapped it to reheat it, and drank it down. "Would you be disappointed in me . . ." he faded out. "Hogwarts school is not so distant."

Harry threw his head back and stared at the cream-color ceiling. "How did I end up as the moral arbiter of you two?" he demanded. He relented his annoyance and peered at his friend and despite having scenes of Snape's recent wedding still fresh in his mind and life, he said, "Vishnu, I think you should do whatever makes you happy. It seems like the system isn't working very well for you."

"The system has been changed. Some wizards in my country still practice the old system."

"What old system?" Harry asked, now uncertain about the answer he just gave.

"The one where one can have more than one wife."

Oh, Hermione will go for that, Harry thought, but kept it in because she could answer for herself. At least, he hoped she could. At the moment, she was living as good as a monk to get away from this situation, so perhaps he should not prejudge. Carefully, he said, "You think that's a good idea?"

"It is a bad idea," Vineet said, to Harry's relief. But then less clearly added, "It is even more illusion that chains one to this life and prevents the soul from moving on."

After a pause, Harry said, "Right." He glanced at the time and finished his tea. "I have to go. I have an appointment and I have to walk a ways from where I can Apparate. Take it easy, all right? I'll see you tomorrow."

Harry still had the previous conversation in his head when he arrived at Belinda's flat. Belinda was waiting, wearing a long, red high-necked pullover over her nice skirt from the Ministry. The flat did not feel cold to Harry, but Belinda must feel differently.

"How are you doing?" Harry asked, buying time to adjust his frame of mind.

Belinda answered something meaningless and tried to lead him inside to sit, but Harry took her shoulders and said, "Look, something's been going on with you and I figured before that if you wanted to say something, you would, but . . ." Her eyes taking on a haunted look stalled him momentarily. "But, now I think you should talk to someone. Have you talked to Minister Bones?"

The absurdity of this was reflected in her reaction. "Talked to the Minister?"

Harry did not know what the topic was, only felt confirmed that was a topic so he rolled along with: "Have you talked to anyone?"

"Yeah, I talked to someone," she replied, annoyed and tried to turn away, but Harry held her fast, not finished yet. Her reaction to this was unexpected, she twisted instinctively, elbowing him on the soft part of his arm. "Let go of me!"

Harry did, immediately contrite. "I'm sorry." Harry envisioned knocking Percy around a little to bring himself back under control. Gently, he asked, "Can I ask whom you talked to?"

She turned away, arms half crossed-half wrapped around her middle as though despite the overgrown jumper she might still be cold. "No. I promised I wouldn't."

"Are you scared of someone?" Harry asked, struggling hard to sound softly understanding when his mind was full of making a careful arrangement of spells that caused some kind of pain.

"No," she replied, confusingly more certain of this answer than the last.

"Will you tell me anything?" Harry asked.


Harry closed his eyes and then asked, "You broke up with Percy, right?"

"Yes," she replied, then finally turned to face him while asking, "Happy about that?"

"Yes. 'Cause I don't like him. It was your choice though. Why won't you tell me what's going on?" He was pleading now. He felt so close to something.

"Because I'll lose my job." She waved her arms around, thin fingers white. "Or at least get demoted down to . . . I don't know, opening owls for the Department of Complaints."

Harry had nothing but momentum now, "Why would you lose you job?"

Now anger came through. Harry found it welcome. "Because you'd tell someone at the Ministry, that's why."

"No. I. wouldn't." Harry retorted. "Why would I do that?"

Her voice dropped, perhaps to avoid shouting. "Because you're an Auror. Don't you think I've seen the reports you blokes file with every last detail of some poor sap's life laid out?"

Harry pointed at his chest and bent forward slightly. "I'm not an Auror yet. Don't you know how many times they tell me that . . . every week it seems like."

She wavered, almost convinced. Harry said, "I promise not to tell anyone. I'll, however, reserve the right to try to talk you into telling someone. But I won't say."

Her eyes dodged between the door and the room across from it. "It'd be nice if someone else knew." She rubbed her eye impatiently. Voice thicker, she added, "But I'm too ashamed to say."

"Hey, there," Harry said, not by any means, wanting to make her cry. He took her arms again, remembering only after his hands sunk into the thick weave of her jumper that she had reacted badly to that before. She did not pull away this time; she bowed her head and rubbed her other eye.

"Can you at least tell me if this has something to do with Percy?" he asked.

She nodded, back of her hand covering her right eye. She appeared so terribly miserable that Harry stepped forward and gave her a hug. Without the high-heels she used to wear when they dated, she fit much better in his arms.

"Come on, then. I'll kick his arse for you if you want."

Her limbs stiffened under his arms. Muffled, she said, "Don't do anything . . . really bad. Like you . . . you did at Malfoy Manor."

Harry bit his lip. Careful not to sound caught off-guard, he said, "No, of course not." But in the wake of her comment, he felt a little sour in the stomach.

He pushed her to arm's length and asked, "Better?"

She nodded, keeping her eyes down. Harry felt it only fair to leave the questions for later.

- 888 -

The next morning, early, Harry was awoken in an unusual way, by Candide's voice at the crack of his door saying, "Harry, you should get up."

Harry lifted his head and blinked in the direction of the door with half-opened eyes. She wasn't really waking him up early, Petunia-style, was she? He wondered this more in surprise than annoyance, but the first toyed with becoming the second.

He dressed and made his way downstairs to the dining room where breakfast appeared immediately, accompanied by a brimming cup of coffee.

"Ready for this?" Candide asked.

Harry stared at her. Gears not meshing quite yet. "Er . . ."

"Nope, have some coffee, then," she said, knowingly. Her hand rested on the newspaper beside her plate. The headline was something to do with a post-Quidditch match pub brawl.

Harry sipped the scalding hot coffee and taking a deep breath, said, "All right. What is it?"

Candide, mouth downward and regretful, lifted the paper, folded it so the back page was upward and turned it around. Filling the back page, as red as any blood, was a photograph of Harry hugging Belinda.

Harry stared at it. "I'm not being very careful," he said. He meant that differently than it sounded. He was really just filling in what Snape would say, were he here. Harry had not run any spells to check if he had been followed, or checked if the blinds on the windows were closed or not. His eyes finally unlatched from the red wool filling the photograph to the headline: New Squeeze for "Boy" Hero?

"I have to go," Harry said, moving to stand.

"Eat your breakfast first," Candide said. "If you're going to have a bad day . . . you're going to need it."

Harry stared at her, and she added, "Sorry, don't mean to sound as if I'm mothering you. I'd say the same to Severus."

"Yeah, well . . ." Harry said, thinking this was getting deep quickly. He stood. "Really have to go."

She reached across the table and flipped his fried egg onto a slice of toast and folded it, squashing it flat. She bundled that in his cloth napkin and held it out.

"Thanks," Harry said as he accepted it.

"Good luck," her voice followed as he Apparated away.

Harry snarfed his breakfast as he strode across the atrium and stuffed the napkin in his pocket. One enormous benefit of his early arrival . . . he was almost alone in the atrium and the few glances he received moved on without real notice of him.

Harry could not locate Tonks in the department. Rogan was manning the office along with Blackpool. Harry snuck a peak at the log book and saw that Tonks was out on a call with Shacklebolt and had been for half an hour. It pained him, but he wished Candide had woken him earlier.

Harry sat down in the training room after giving up on waiting for Tonks. Kerry Ann shot him a most disappointed look.

"It's not what you think," Harry grumbled.

Her attitude immediately brightened. "Well, that's good to hear. You're one of the few men I still have faith in. If I lost faith in you . . ." She turned back to her reading.

Harry stared at the side of her head and her ear. Her comments reminded him of Vineet, of being given too much moral or philosophical credit.

Rodgers must not know anything about the Prophet because he did not mention or even hint at it, to Harry's relief. As their lessons wound through the morning, and Kerry Ann was called up for a third time, clunking her way to the front in her awkward shoes, Harry thought about high heels. He thought about how hard it must be to walk in them. And then a very bad notion occurred to him.

At lunchtime Harry, as much as he would have preferred to have broken into the Department of Mysteries and confronted Percy, went instead to Mr. Weasley's office. Mr. Weasley was speaking with Shacklebolt about some ongoing trouble communicating with the Obliviator Squad. Harry waited impatiently in the corridor, making sure he was in Mr. Weasley's line of sight. But when Shacklebolt moved off, Mr. Weasley stood and donned his cloak.

"I have a lunch meeting with Minister, Harry." He stopped before Harry as though to make it clear he had given him some attention. "I sense this is a topic we've covered already."

Harry required a moment to recover from his surprise at the astuteness of this observation. "Yes sir," he admitted.

"It's been duly noted already, Harry," he stated flatly and, swinging his cloak onto his other shoulder, he hurried away.

Harry watched him turn the corner, thinking that they were not leaving him many options outside of taking action on his own. Harry returned to the tea room and found Tonks, who found him at the same instant. Neither of them said a word, but the room cleared out with everyone else spouting various absurd excuses.

They stared at each other. Tonks' hair was mousey brown, not a good sign. Harry tried to imagine the situation reversed so he did not completely muck this up. It did not make him feel better to do this.

"You know there's nothing to that stupid photo, right?" Harry said.

Tonks finished her tea in one long gulp. "I have to go, I'm on duty," she said.

At the door Harry halted her with, "You aren't even going to hear me out?"

She stopped, hand still clutching the door handle mercilessly. "Harry, if we are going to have a row, it has to be off the clock. Meet me after shift."

"There's nothing to have a row about," Harry said as the door swung closed.

After a day of distracted training where he only felt he made good use of the weight training portion, Harry waited around the uneventful office for an hour, doing some random filing and then thinking she may have meant the tea room specifically, he checked there, went back to the Auror's office and then went back to the tea room to wait there. Dinner hour had come and gone and Harry checked the sandwich cart for leftovers from lunch. Only one pumpkin juice remained, tucked in the back on its side. Harry cracked the lid of this open, mind elsewhere. He took a long gulp of juice and set it down hard as the room began to swerve around him. He grabbed hold of the table edge, expecting the floor and walls to re-right themselves, but they did not. Harry’s legs grew wobbly and he dropped to his knees. He called out, but heard no footsteps and when he managed to jerk his unwilling neck to stare at the door, he found it closed, even though he had not closed it.

Severus, Harry thought at the same time he decided firmly with his spastic mind that the juice had been poisoned . . . he had to get to his guardian. Harry immediately fell through the floor of the tea room into the Dark Plane. Unlike the quite corridors of the Ministry, things were busy here. Piecemeal, glittery creatures crept close, curious. Harry pushed himself up with one weak hand and stared down the nearest beady eyes. Saliva dripped from Harry’s mouth as he did so and he knocked himself off-balance wiping it away. The creatures approached, rheumy eyes glowing more than they should in the scant light; Harry did not have the strength to will this second wave of tenacious beasts away. The closest one cocked its head and clapped its tiny jaws together, flashing row upon row of hypodermic teeth.

Harry had to get away, to Snape, right now. He would know what to do. He would take care of him. With that overriding thought, he pushed himself to Apparate.

A new section of grey desolation greeted Harry. Disoriented and weak and fearing for his life, he imagined the Hogwarts Potions Master in whom he had absolute faith, and dropped himself awkward and teetering through the gritty ground digging into his knees.

Harry arrived with a tinny clatter of ice shards in a lamplit room that smelled warmly familiar of stale potion brewing and wood smoke. His head was careening toward the floor that was already close due to his kneeling when he folded himself into the real world. As he collapsed, Harry cried out, “Severus, help me.” His last thought before darkness sucked him in was to wonder why the stone floor pressed into his cheek smelled dank, like a dungeon.

Harry awoke to the same scents that had followed him into unconsciousness. He shifted his arm and found it to be under a warm duvet. A pillow cradled his head. Harry heard movement nearby and cracked his right eye open. Snape sat beside the bed, arms crossed, edged by the orange glow from the hearth far across the room.

Harry reached up a weak arm and rubbed his forehead. His scar itched. He lifted his head as a prelude to sitting up but decided to preserve his pride and not make the attempt.

“Er . . .” Harry said, trying to sort things out. He certainly felt greatly improved from when he had arrived, although he wished he felt more firmly himself.

Snape shifted minutely, seeming content to observe him. Harry squinted at him and leaned forward to look for his glasses on the bedside table. With minimal, almost economical, movement Snape reached into the breast pocket of his robe and handed them over.

“Thanks,” Harry said, hooking them over his ears. The first thing that occurred to him was that this was Snape’s chambers all right, but not his current ones. The center of Harry’s gut grew heavy and ominous. He turned to his host and observed him in return. Snape raised a challenging brow as Harry did this, but it confirmed that this Snape was not the right one; his face was too gaunt, for one thing, and his gaze far too consistently hard as granite.

Harry sighed and regrouped. “Thanks for taking care of the poison,” he tossed out as a test, hoping for some conversation.

“It was a sophisticated one,” Snape stated with no feeling and left it at that.

“Was it?” Harry prompted.

A long pause ensued before: “It was a Personatus Potion. One that manifests as one thing to the casual observer, but in actuality, the expected antidote completes the original fatal poison.”

Harry pondered that, wishing his faculties were a little more game for action. “What’s the point in that?”

“The point of it is,” Snape stated, sounding the aggravated tutor, “is that the recipient will appear to have been killed by their would-be rescuer.”

“Ah,” Harry muttered. “Someone is trying kill me and get away with it.”

“A stunning conclusion,” Snape observed.

Harry rubbed his forehead again and this time had the courage to assume the worst. He closed his eyes and with some effort found that niche in his mind where the world bled green and shadows lurked. Many, many lurked very close by as though inside the castle. “Damn,” Harry muttered.

“Problem?” Snape prompted sarcastically.

This made Harry laugh. He could not have held it in had he wanted to. When he stopped he laid back on the thick pillow and said, “You even gave me your bed.”

Snape stood suddenly. “No place else to put you. Could not allow you to be seen.”

The room swayed for Harry, and he wished it would not do that; he needed to be sharp. “You could have turned me in.”

Snape spun and studied him. After a long silence, he asked, “Where have you been, Potter?”

“Um, studying,” Harry ventured.

“And, how, pray-tell did you cheat death?”

Harry hesitated. “If I tell you that, you won’t be curious anymore and then who knows what you might do.” He sounded drunken to his own ears and wondered if the antidote was still doing its work.

Snape appeared to respect this answer. He departed through the door and moments later a glow indicated it was magically sealed.

Harry forced himself to sit up again, but dizziness overtook him and he fell back to the pillow.

Harry awoke later, quickly confirming that he had not just been having a bad dream. This time he applied more will-power and levered himself to his feet. He circled the room, which contained many familiar objects. He did not find his wand, even using an Accio repeatedly while holding out his empty hand.

Giving up, Harry stared down at a chess set near an overstuffed chair and considered simply departing. Except he wanted his new wand back and he was not fit for the Dark Plane in this state. Traveling via it in a drugged state was how he ended up here in the first place. On top of that Harry was as curious as he accused his host of being. He set the chess board for a game, waking the pieces as he lifted each out of the nearby bin. White was set up on his end, so he moved the pawn from in front of the right-hand bishop.

The door snapped open without warning. Snape stared at him long seconds before stepping inside and closing it again. He strode over to Harry, seeming to be trying to Legilimize him. Harry kept his mind properly closed, finally glancing down at the chess board. Snape followed his gaze and after consideration moved the opposing pawn for black.

Harry move the pawn before the knight ahead one and waited. Snape shifted to place some rolled parchments on the chair and placed his king’s knight out.

Harry did not make a move. “Can you stop potioning me into submission?” Harry asked. Until he asked this, he had not fully formed the notion that this was why he felt so helpless.

“Hm,” Snape grunted. “If it results in a decent chess game, I suppose.”

“Thank you,” Harry honestly returned.

“I am curious, however,” Snape said as he strode to a long narrow table upon which sat a row of decorative bottles. He poured out a tumbler-full of a milky orange one and brought it back for Harry. He tauntingly withdrew the offered serving with the words, “Why did you dare come here?”

“I knew you were the only one who could help me,” Harry replied truthfully, mind open enough to let the truth be revealed.

The tumbler was held out. “You are a foolish young man.”

Harry swallowed the faintly herbal liquid. “I’m still alive, aren’t I?”

“I would like to know how,” Snape challenged, tossing his sleeve as he turned.

“I don’t know,” Harry replied.

Snape’s narrowed eyes slid around to Harry while he paced, muttering, “Albus must have arranged something . . . spirited you away . . .”

Harry drained the tumbler of the last few drops. “Maybe.” Harry wished he knew how broadly he needed to lie. He wished his head would clear faster. Chilled and with his scar itching, Harry took the chair before the fire.

Snape said, “I must return for dinner. I will be missed if I am not there.”

Harry’s stomach rumbled at those words. “Any chance for . . . ?” Harry began.

Snape sneered at him. “A heel of stale bread, perhaps?” he suggested maliciously.

“Anything,” Harry said, not insulted.

Snape rolled his eyes and stopped at the door. “The house-elves are forbidden to come into my chambers or my office because of the potions. They must not see you as they would report to the headmaster immediately.”

Harry blinked at that. “All right.”

“I removed everything from your person that could possibly be charmed as a portkey. I’m assuming that is how you got in here, apparently from the North Pole since you were covered in ice.”

Harry didn’t reply.

The sound of the fire ruled for several breaths. Snape went on in a lower voice, “How you came into possession of a portkey keyed to my chambers I cannot imagine.”

It seemed Snape would not depart without some kind of response. Harry said, “Something I was keeping around just in case.”

Snape’s expression did not change, but what could he say? He dropped the issue. “The ghosts also have loose lips, but they rarely come into my chambers. The Bloody Baron does on occasion, but him I can control. He is not particularly fond of the Dark Lord in any event, having nearly got himself banished on several occasions.” He glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece and hurried out, not noticing Harry’s frozen expression.

Harry let his head fall back against the chair. “He didn’t just imply Voldemort was headmaster, did he?” he asked the empty room. Suddenly, Harry felt much more reluctant to leave for his own Plane. Instead, he closed his eyes and tried to track the shadows that moved in the forest of his mind. By concentrating very hard, while simultaneously not concentrating at all, he counted thirteen very close. One of those would be Snape. Harry went to stand before the small corroded mirror over the washbasin and wished he had his wand.

Snape returned an hour and a half later. Harry sat before the chess board, playing against the pieces themselves, which was challenging because they cheated.

“Definitely a Slytherin set,” Harry commented when Snape came over to observe.

“A gift from a friend.”

“Let me guess, name of Malfoy?”

After a pause, “Astute guess.”

Harry scoffed lightly. “Was that a compliment?”

This Snape, after a glare, sat at a small desk and proceeded to do what his Snape did, mark assignments. “So,” Harry finally ventured. “Still stuck teaching Potions? Never assigned anything better?”

Snape shot him a priceless look of disbelief. “Defense Against the Dark Arts is hardly in the curriculum at this time.”

“Oh, yeah,” Harry said, trying to sound knowing. His insides knotted a bit farther. He opened his mouth but couldn’t find a good way to ask if his worst assumption was correct. “No Advanced Arts of the Dark Arts class to replace it, eh?” he asked lightly.

This drew a unexpectedly thoughtful look from Snape, who said, “I expect the competition would not be welcome.”

The fire slowly died down and the clock read half past midnight. Harry stood with purpose and said, “I want to go look around.” It was either decide that, or depart entirely.

“Really?” came the sarcastic reply. “You do realize that the Dementors patrol the grounds and school from midnight to seven?”

Harry came to a halt, mid stride to the sealed door. “Oh.” He considered the chair he had just vacated with reluctance. He could just leave, but instead he made himself retake the chair, pulling the footstool close enough to curl up and use it as a bed.

He fell asleep minutes later, woken only briefly by something tangy smoldering under his nose and then after a whiff, he was out cold.

A headache stabbed, making Harry wince, when he next opened his eyes. He was alone but a small breakfast was stacked in paper wrappers on the empty chess board. After eagerly eating, Harry patrolled the room, finally settling on a book from the shelf on mutation spells and potions.

When Snape returned, Harry immediately asked, “Can I have my wand?”

“First, I want to know why you are here.”

“To destroy Voldemort, why else-”

Snape reacted with outright violence to the dark wizard’s name, sending the book Harry was reading flying up into his face. Harry blocked it with his arm and it flew beyond to smack the rack of fireplace tools.

“Sorry,” Harry said, rubbing his bruised arm. “I should have known better.”

Snape was pointing his wand at Harry like he meant it. “You damn well should have,” he snarled.

Harry ignored the wand aimed at him and reached over the side of the chair to fetch the book. “His name has no power you don’t give it,” he stated calmly. “I’m certain that I’m not the only person to point that out to you.”

Snape lowered the wand.

“On that note,” Harry said amiably, “it’d help to have my wand back.”

Hands propped on his hips, Snape asked, “How do you think you are going to accomplish any damage to the Dark Lord? There are powers he controls that even I do not understand.”

Harry closed the book, treating it carefully after the violence to it, and stood with purpose. “First, I want to take a look around. I need you to get Filch distracted so I can impersonate him. He can go anywhere in this castle without question. But first I need my wand.”

Snape used a spell on one of his inside robe pockets and retrieved Harry’s wand from it. Same as the antidote, he held the wand just out of reach and said, “I want to know how you survived.”

Harry shrugged.

Impatient, Snape demanded, “What do you remember of that night you followed Quirrell?”

Behind his carefully impassive features, Harry’s mind lit up. “Er, I thought it must be you, actually.”

“Figures,” Snape said, pacing away, holding Harry’s wand almost as though it were his own.

“Hey, I’m being honest with you. It was a long time ago.”

“And where have you been in the meantime?”

“Studying . . . with anyone who will teach me. With a shaman in Finland.” Given whom he needed to lie to, Harry felt the best artificial story would be one wrapped tightly in the truth.

“Explains the ice. What were you learning there?” Snape asked doubtfully.

“Old Magic,” Harry replied. When Snape shook his head doubtfully, Harry insisted, “That’s what let me survive the first time Vo- the Dark Lord came after me.”

Snape looked him up and down. “They even had your body, Potter. Of course it was Albus . . . who fetched it.” He paced up and down the room again, agitated as though personally offended. “You and your little friends had broken through all of the protective puzzles.”

Harry thought rapidly though the events of that night. If he were to have messed up that confrontation where would it have been? He had to admit, the promise of his parents returning had tugged at him. Quirrell may have been smart enough to not touch him a second time, used a wand instead. Voldemort may have simply taken Harry over and he had not mustered the will to resist.

“I messed up,” Harry tossed out. “And I needed to get away to prepare better to face him. It was my task, Dumbledore said.”

“You should have come back after Dumbledore’s defeat; the battle weakened the Dark Lord immensely.”

Harry did not reply to this directly, not wanting to dwell on what sounded like a tragically desperate bid on his old mentor’s part. “My wand?”

Snape handed it over with clear reluctance. “He is stronger than he has ever been, even as distracted with running a school as he has been. Many times stronger. If he found out . . . ” Snape actually bit his lip for just an instant before snarling and spinning away to pace again.

“Why are you helping me then?” Harry asked, needing to know.

“I promised Dumbledore, many many years ago, that I would act to protect you.”

Harry smiled lightly and stroked his wand, glad to have it. “No matter what happens I won’t implicate you, Professor.”

Harry went to the mirror and began working on his disguise. Snape watched for a while before departing. He returned as Harry was finishing and said, “I sent him to the lower dungeon to clean up the water that floods there, a task he will be a long time completing.”

Harry grinned at that and headed out, careful to shuffle as he walked and to keep a hunch to his back. In the second cupboard he found a mop and wooden bucket, which he proceeded to carry up the stairs to the Entrance Hall. From there he had a view of the Great Hall. The walls had not been scrubbed in years so the black of the fires and candles had coated the stone streaky grey. But most disturbing was the banners. The Slytherin banners hung long and proud but the other three tables were marked by only small ones at the very front, looking more like badges of shame.

Standing in that spot gave Harry a feeling not unlike curse aversion, so he moved on up the broad staircase. Students sat on the steps talking quietly and bending over books as though everything were normal.

Harry wandered the corridors, ignoring the occasional look of alarm from a student lingering between classes. Most outrightly ignored him as though he wore an invisibility cloak. In the trophy room, Harry felt that awful aversion again, bad enough to make his eyes water. He stopped to pretend to mop until the room was empty and then moved down the case until he pinpointed where he felt worst. His eyes moved over the polished wood, and the gold and silver figures and plates until they landed on the golden cup that topped the tall House Cup trophy. That was it, definitely.

Harry looked around until he found a nearly identical cup atop another trophy in the next case on the bottom shelf in the back. Working quickly, Harry unwelded that cup and swapped it atop the big trophy, where it would pass ordinary scrutiny. He even used an anti-dusting charm to make it look untouched, which helped hide the switch rather a lot. Pocketing the cup, despite a strong will against closer contact with it, Harry shuffled along the room. He had one last stop to make before heading back down to the dungeons.

Author's Note: Well, this was the last chapter before Deathly Hallows. I'll see what I can incorporate or I may just stick with what I've got written. We'll see.

Next chapter: 11
"The living is fine," Snape said, sounding vaguely spoiled.

"You're lying," Harry accused. He put the emerald down, intact, in the center of the empty chess board and asked, "Why was V- the Dark Lord allowed to continue as headmaster?"

"Why was he allowed?" Snape echoed derisively. "No one had any choice, Potter! What a ridiculous suggestion. Fudge believed it would keep him busy, and he was correct about that. Turns out he never lived down Albus refusing him a job."

"Blimey," Harry muttered. "It's a wonder any students come."

Chapter 11: Crux of Evil
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Chapter 11 — Crux of Evil

Kali flapped as best she could inside her cage and stuck her nose through the wires to the point where the thin bars pressed her ears back. Her tongue almost reached the fringe of Snape's hair when she flicked it to full length out over the dining room table where Snape sat with his head bent, resting on hands tangled in his hair. Kali's cage had been kept in reach for the last day and a half so he could keep a close eye on the creature. The sunlight streaming in the window mocked the household's distress with its glorious happiness.

A burst of ash ejected from the hearth as the Floo network flared and Tonks stepped out of it. Snape raised his head slowly, fearing hope, keeping it at bay until he could read her eyes. Her frown justified his caution.

She sat across from him with a sigh and without invitation. "I checked Transportation's records like you asked. They have no record of him Apparating out or using a Portkey and the atrium desk has no record of him leaving through the gateway. BUT, they aren't always a hundred percent there when it gets busy. AND, Transportation has been sloppy of late as well. But it is odd." She gathered her weathered, dim-haired self together and peered at Snape with curiosity. "Why did you ask me to check? What are you thinking happened?"

Snape had already made up an excuse. "I was wondering if for some reason he used his invisibility cloak."

"Yeah, but why would he do that?" At his shrug, she more stridently said, "He wanted to talk to me, was waiting, hanging around the office and doing filing for Kingsley." She glanced up as Candide slipped into the room in the attitude of one at a wake. She laid a hand on Snape's shoulder and trailed it around to the other as she took the seat beside him, keeping her chair facing his rather than tucking it in as though eating. Kali, head still through the bars, twisted to peer at her, but quickly returned her tiny gaze to Snape.

Snape studied the Chimrian in return. "She is calm, but far too attached to me."

Everyone stared at the bat-like animal, but Kali did not take note of this and continued to try to press herself through the bars in Snape's direction.

Tonks, eyes on the pet, said, "Candide, I know we've been over this already, but have you thought of anything new from Wednesday morning that might give us any clue?"

Snape stood and reached for the Floo powder. "I'll fetch my pensieve."

In his absence Candide replied, "No, I haven't. You spoke with Belinda, right?"

Tonks nodded, glancing away as if to imply that topic line was not a welcome one. Snape returned to a silent room and set the pensieve down. To Candide he said, "You do not mind . . . I assume?"

"Severus, I'll do anything I can to help."

"Think of that morning," He commanded her, and touched his wand to her temple, drawing out a glowing blue-silver cord that he fed into the otherwise empty stone bowl.

Tonks stood to bend over the bowl as well and watched the events of that morning as Harry was shown the newspaper. When Harry said, "I'm not being very careful," Tonks grunted, and when they all stood straight after the memory ended, her eyes remained dark.

"Any help?" Candide asked, and Snape shook his head, face grim. He turned to face the hearth, away from the women.

Tonks said, "Maybe I should pay another visit to Belinda."

Candide said, "If you think Harry was cheating on you, you are sadly mistaken."

Tonk's hair remained brown, but it bobbed out straight before settling down again. "You never want to think that about someone, do you?" She huffed and said, "We have everyone out looking and the Ministry's offered a reward. That probably won't decrease the number of reporters outside your gate, so owl if you need help handling them."

Snape, in a tone that indicated he would be pleased to have something to take his frustration out on, stated with certainty, "I won't need assistance with that."

"Well, then, stay out of trouble if you would; we can't spare anyone." Her voice cracked as she closed that statement. "If you think of anything at all, let us know." With that, she turned to the Floo and disappeared.

Candide said, "I assume you didn't bother to tell her about the spell you and Headmistress McGonagall tried last night because it failed."

Snape strolled over to stand before the framed photographs of Harry and his friends propped on the sideboard, pushed to one end by the piles of Candide's folders. "I actually believe now that it did work."

"But it didn't flare red like you said it would. It didn't find him."

"He is out of reach of the spell. Out of reach of . . ." Snape, who had been standing with his head bowed low, raised it with a snap and grabbed up quill and paper from Candide's work pile on the sideboard. He scratched out a note quickly and folded it. "I'll return shortly," he said to Candide.

"Where are you going?"

"Owl Office. I need to send something as speedily as possible."

She opened her mouth to protest his thinking of something and not taking the information to the Aurors but he had already disappeared in the Floo.

He returned shortly as promised and began to pace. Candide looked up from her work and said, "Severus, please sit down."

He stopped pacing at least, but stood staring through her, thinking. She said with no little strain, "I'm sorry I can't be more help."

He faltered over the words, but managed to say, "You are more help than you know."

She bent back to the large grid sheet before her and said, "I figured I wouldn't get sent away this time." When he did not respond to this, she looked up with a softer expression and added, "You were feeling guilty last time Harry went missing . . . I think."

An empty gap stretched wide before Snape responded. "He is still my responsibility."

"He's nineteen."

"That does not change anything. He will need an eye kept on him as long as I have strength to do so."

She held up her hand, ring first. The scarlet stone echoed the square sunlight from the window in its core.

"Perhaps it will come to that," Snape said to the offer. He settled at the table across from her and sat with fingers perched before him, deep in thought.

"You don't want to join the search?" she asked after a while.

"I do not know what happened and must assume that this household is in danger."

She blinked at him. "Oh. One never knows around here, I suppose."

- 888 -

When Snape answered the knock upon his dungeon office door, Harry could see he had a student with him. Harry grunted, “You said you had a spill?”

“In the classroom,” Snape said, snapping the door closed again.

Harry shuffled down there and took a seat at one of the familiar tables. He took the cup out of his pocket and dropped it into the bucket under a rag. This gave him a bit of relief from it. A noise at the door latch made Harry leap for the mop to pretend to be cleaning, but it was only Snape.

“You were quicker than I thought,” Snape said.


Snape held up a hand and gestured with a sideways nod towards his office. Harry picked up the bucket and followed him out. Safely back in Snape’s chambers Harry pulled the cup out and placed it on the chess board.

“And what would that be?” Snape asked with no confidence that it may be important.

“A Crux Horridus,” Harry replied.

Snape straightened and put his clasped hands to his chin, eyes glued to the object. He fetched the valet chair from beside the wardrobe and joined Harry in staring at the cup more closely. Eventually, Snape said, “That explains quite a bit. I don’t know why I did not think of it.”

“Have a Caeruleus fire handy?” Harry asked.

“Even in the Potions classroom, such a thing would not go un-noticed.”

“Do you know how to destroy it, then?” Harry asked.

“Albus did not instruct you in that?”

Harry shook his head. “Got any good books on the topic?”

“Not in the library, certainly.” He stood suddenly. “But I have a few that may have something . . .” He went to the shelf tucked behind the bed and with a tap of his wand the apparently built-in stone shelves slid aside to reveal another bookcase behind the first. Snape perused these and ten minutes later returned with four heavy old books, the kind that squirmed or nipped at you when you tried to thumb through them too fast.

The two of them set to reading until Snape had to teach. By the time he returned after lunch, Harry had learned a lot about spells involving human and animal lifeforces, far more than he ever wished to know.

Snape, after five minutes browsing Veil Avoidance, one of the books Harry had given up on, he said, “Here it is.” He turned the book toward Harry, who read where indicated:

The soule risepticol is best maed from metele or jewel, or the soule with-in culd prove fraggile. An eccepxionale wizzard can crush the soule within wile forsing it to esscape too small an opening. The heete of esscape will bern up the soule, but bewaer if it doez not bern up, the soule will force a new home in whome'r is closest.

Harry took a deep breath and then another while considering the cup, shining there in the firelight. Tiny scratches marred its polished surface. He could do this, he was certain. Mind clear, he picked it up and pressed the bowl between his palms while imagining trapping what it contained. He knew what Voldemort's power and soul felt like, having once gathered part of it up to toss it away. The thin metal bent but what was inside resisted. Harry concentrated for a minute, but could not quite work out how to follow the instructions.

Harry straightened the cup to an approximation of round and set it back down to stare at it. “I can do this,” he insisted when Snape shifted to cross his arms and peer down his nose. "Give me some time. And step back," he added, thinking he did not want to battle a possessed Snape.

It required an hour and uncountable tries but Harry finally got a feel for what was trapped inside and pressing hard enough to almost collapse the bowl, he imagined a tiny crack in his mental crushing and with an explosion, the cup jumped from his hands and clattered on the floor along with an unearthly cry of despair and a gurgle.

Harry shook his burned hand and examined the soot that coated it. He scooped up the cup from where it had rolled to a stop before the fire and used a spell to straighten it again. It looked and felt perfectly ordinary now. “That worked,” Harry said, accepting a relievingly cold, wet cloth from Snape. “There must be more of them. I wonder how many.” He thought back to the evidence lists from Merton’s hideout, trying to remember how many Horcruxes were supposedly found. “Let’s say there are six,” Harry mused, assuming the number would be the same. “Nagini is one, the cup, another . . . I better go out hunting around again. Nagini I can kill when the time comes.”

“I may know where one is,” Snape said softly.

“Can you fetch it?” Harry asked eagerly.

- 888 -

In the dining room in Shrewsthorpe nothing much moved until a glittering pigeon came to the window. Snape leapt up and opened the sash and then growled as he removed from the bird's leg the very letter he had written. The bird took off again, flying at a blur.

"You rented a Silver Pigeon?" Candide asked in surprise.

"The cost was no issue."

"I'm just surprised they had one. It's always rented when we need it."

"But it did not find the recipient. I may no longer have the correct address and the man has a habit, Harry said, of keeping an anti-post charm around himself." He tossed the message aside into the Floo and burned it up with a wave of his wand.

"Whom were you trying to reach?" Candide asked, watching the last of the flames flutter out as the paper curled completely black.

"The Shaman in Finland," Snape stood, thinking, and then without warning reached for the Floo powder again. "Come with me this time. You need to visit your office, correct?"

Snape left Candide at the accountancy and strolled to the Apothecary. Inside before a tall stand of glittering empty bottles, he waited for the current customer to leave and the proprietor, clearly aware of Snape's presence, hurried the customer along.

"Jigger," Snape said when they were alone. "I understand that you have a certain standard of secrecy toward your customers . . . indeed, I have much appreciated that over the years, but I am dearly in need of information."

The old man behind the counter frowned. "You are certainly one of my better customers, Professor, but like you said . . ."

Snape spoke quickly, "I wish only to hire this person that I need to locate, nothing more."

Jigger's face relaxed and he put aside some stray bottles on the counter while asking, "And exactly whom are you looking for?"

"I'm not entirely certain; that is why I have come to you. I need to locate a vampire, and given their usual dietary requirements as well as your expertise in procuring almost anything, regulated or not, I am guessing that they not infrequent customers."

Jigger stopped filing bottles and said stiffly, "There's a registry at the Ministry. Why not start there?"

"I want an unregistered vampire, if possible, one I can trust to keep a secret. We go back a long way, Jigger. I promise you the vampire will not know where I learned of his or her existence."

"Only for you, Sev," Jigger said, picking up a rag and wiping down the counter. The rag began to smoke, so he shook it out and hung it up. "There's an unregistered one of 'em moved in just a week ago on Knockturn. Number Twenty-Six. He's one of several who have moved in recently, I'm not sure why that's happenin', but the rest are registered. I know, because they bring in their blood ration coupons from the Ministry. This bloke's appetite runs beyond bovine and porcine blood, so do be careful."

"What's his name?"

Jiggers shook his head that he did not know. "I wish I knew why the neighborhood is suddenly so attractive ta them."

Snape stood thinking and said, "I believe it is because the most dominant of their number was recently removed to prison, leaving a vacuum. But that is only a guess."

"Ah," Jiggers muttered. "Good to know it isna something more worrisome than that."

Snape thanked him and stepped along a few doors and upstairs to the accountancy. Someone was letting an owl gripping a large package out of the window. More owls waited in a cage mounted directly in the largest window. When the woman turned, Snape recognized Roberta, who gave a small start at seeing him there. He knew Candide had invited her to the wedding and that she had refused to attend. He cared not at all beyond any impact on Candide's happiness with her work.

They stared at each other and for the first time Snape remembered her from Hogwarts, one of many students, nameless to him, who kept their head down inside a book most of the time except when an opportunity arose to glare with disapproval at a Slytherin. Roberta looked away first to return to her desk. Snape heard Candide's voice then, emanating from the smaller office off to the right. It pulled him out of memories not worth revisiting, for which he was grateful given that he had no thoughts to spare for anything beyond suppositioning on what may have happened to Harry.

As she stepped out of the side office, Snape noticed for the first time that her belly had begun to swell. A strange numbness suffused him as he considered a second son in his life. He had months to prepare, so he pushed it aside out of a mind too crowded with worry to take on even a remote conception of caring for an infant.

"Severus," she said, smiling in pleasure at his standing there. "Let me get some papers and we can go . . ."

Later that night, Snape's watching the clock caught Candide's attention.

"Expecting something?" she asked. There had been no communication from the Ministry, but several owls from Hogwarts asking for information and offering help. "Is Tonks supposed to call again?"

"No, I have to see someone, and it would be best to show up immediately at sunset."

"Whom do you need to see?"

Snape stood, thinking to get ready to depart. "You should go to the Burrow whilst I am gone. It will give you a chance to catch up on news of the search."

She put down her quill and followed him to the entry hall to collect her cloak. She did not ask anything more as Snape saw her off in the Floo. He immediately took himself to the Leaky Cauldron and out into the dewy air of Diagon Alley. He strode with focused purpose to Twenty-Six Knockturn Alley and inside a dusty staircase, knocked on the door. After many minutes, a metal plate slide aside with a clack and red-flecked eyes peered out. "What is it?"

"I have a proposition for you," Snape said.

The man on the other side of the door laughed harshly. "Why would I talk to you? I don't even know who you are." He started to slide the plate closed, but Snape hexed it back open again.

Vampires were a dark bunch, untrusting, but Snape had a significant past connection he could use. "I am Voldemort's last free servant; that is why you should hear me out."

The eyes in the slot attempted to Legilimize him, but failed. The door clicked open.

"No garlic," the man said as he stepped back from the door. Snape stepped inside, taking in the copiously candlelit room with strategic eyes. The vampire asked, "You aren't one of us, are you?"

"Hardly," Snape snapped back, insulted.

"Hmf," the vampire snorted. He was tall and blonde with aquamarine eyes that glittered red at certain angles of the many flickering candles. "You don't wish to live forever?"

"No, one life is quite sufficient."

He posed faintly. "I get to be beautiful and thirty forever, what more could one want?"

"To be eighteen forever?" Snape offered, immediately disliking the man.

"Eighteen is a foolish age," the vampire said.

Snape could not disagree with that given that he was hunting an errant nineteen-year old.

The vampire pulled the sole chair—an antique with lion-claw feet and a ghoulish face on the backrest—to the center of the room and left it there to lean casually against the closed coffin that sat on a stone pedestal off to one side. "Have a seat," he said. "If we were at my castle I could offer you an entire wing of it for your comfort, but this is what I have at the moment. "So, what is this proposition? Realize before you waste your limited breath that an immortal has little interest in most things mortals value."

Snape took the chair only because he needed to stay on the man's good side. "I need you to look for someone."

"Really? A hunt?" The vampire tossed his wavy hair, displaying that it was brown underneath, which implied the improbable notion of sun-bleaching. "Few would hire a vampire for such a task, although we are quite good at it."

"I seek someone who has gone where only your kind and other beasts of darkness can venture."

He had caught the vampire by surprise with that. If Harry had not told him, Snape would not have known vampires were able to use the Dark Plane.

The vampire stood silent, calculating, before saying, "Say I were interested in this task. Whom am I seeking?"

"My son. I expect he will be easy to spot, being the only human there."

"He is not human if he is there," the vampire said with a hint of disgust.

"He is human," Snape insisted. "This is an easy task for you, surely you must need something. I can pay handsomely in gold or whatever currency is most convenient for you."

The vampire pushed away from the coffin and began a slow circling of Snape. "I don't need gold or rupees or florins or whatever is circulating these days." He came around the chair back where he had started, velvet robes dragging on the floor. Snape wished he were not sitting, but given his lesser height he would still be at a disadvantage if he were not.

The vampire turned his pale face Snape's way and it had lost the teenage blasé it had displayed before. "The task you request is indeed easy, and fortunately the payment will be equally easy for you." He stepped closer as he spoke and reached out his index finger and slowly dragged it along below Snape's jaw. "Trivially easy."

Snape froze, torn between revulsion and dear need for this creature's help.

The vampire went on, "You see, it is possible to purchase human blood, from the Muggles if you can imagine that. But it has been processed, filtered, treated, and chilled. You cannot imagine what an utter waste that is." He circled around the back of the chair, pulling Snape's hair back so that it no longer hid his neck. He dragged a finger the other direction, stopping and pressing at the jugular with a light touch. His voice was disconcertingly close to Snape's ear as it hypnotically said, "Biting an unwilling mortal is grounds for banishment and I am intending to repossess my castle here in your less than sunny country so I do not wish that to happen. But I am also acutely hungry for fresh blood." His breath brushed Snape's ear as he added, "It has been a very long time . . . my teeth ache for the pressure of hot flesh."

Snape twitched. It was a jump held back with iron will.

The silky voice at his ear laughed. "A barely willing victim would be even better."

Snape swallowed. "Nothing else you might want?" The presence at his neck lifted and Snape nearly closed his eyes in relief.

The vampire came around to stand before him again. "At some point, yes, an interior decorator capable of rescuing a castle that has been hideously converted into a museum, but frankly you don't look qualified for that position." He licked his lips which shone with saliva. "No, there is just one thing I would take in payment or you have no deal."

"You will not make me one of your kind?" Snape asked, gut urging him to make a run for it, but his rational mind seeing no alternatives.

"Traditionally, we dislike competition, to put it mildly."

Snape imagined Harry learning of this. He would not be pleased to say the least, but Snape had no options and he could not sit by and do nothing. "All right," Snape agreed. The vampire's eyes flared red and he bared his long incisors. Snape cut him off with: "But after you have succeeded. Bring me back my son or at least proof that you have found him."

"And how would I prove that. Shall I bring you his head?"

Snape sat unbaited by that. "Get me the answer to the question: what present did his father first give him?"

The vampire considered that. "Agreed. I will look for him tonight. Where shall I find you when I have found him?"

Snape did not want this creature anywhere near his house. "I will return here . . . a half hour before sunrise."

"Clever man. Make it an hour." He stepped forward again with a catlike grace and hunting manner. Whispering while leaning in close, he said, "I want sufficient time to enjoy my payment." He licked his lips faintly, drawing in the saliva pooling there.

Snape stood. "Yes, I'm sure you do," he stated brusquely, barely masking his violent disgust.

At the Burrow the worn, brightly mismatched couches and tablecloth calmed Snape given how far removed they were from black velvet drapes and wrought iron candelabras. Candide stood from the table where several Weasley's had gathered, drooping slightly. "Any luck?" Candide asked.

Snape shook his head, not wishing to discuss what he had been doing. Ron and Bill frowned and returned to clutching the large mugs of tea before them.

"I appreciate your assistance," Snape said to them.

"Anything for Harry," Ron said into his mug.

"Indeed," Snape agreed with vehemence.

The next morning, under cover of darkness, Snape escorted a sleepy and somewhat irritable Candide to the twin's laboratory where a light burned in the window unlike the darkened offices on the first floors up and down the alley, including the accountancy.

"I don't understand why you don't want company?" Candide asked for the second time.

Fred, the twin who was not sleeping on the rug using a giant marshmellow as a pillow, came to the rescue of Snape's thin patience. "Don't ask something like that of Professor Snape," he told her in mock horror. "The mind boggles at the answer might be. Come on in. I'll make you some tea."

At Twenty-Six Knockturn Alley, Snape found the vampire pacing.

"Well?" Snape asked.

After a pause, the creature said snippily, "I didn't find him. I found evidence of him, in the form of a pentagram I'm quite certain none of the creatures would have left behind. Plus a lot of trainer footprints, already covered by other tracks. But no sign of the boy human himself."

"What would it cost me to have you look again? Or bring me there."

The vampire considered his nails before replying. "Nothing extra. Believe me, I thought I had my first real meal in a year coming to me. Waltzing in like a proverbial lamb, even." He threw down his hand, making the nearby candles flicker. "I know he is not there. I set my pets off to hunt for him as well as looking myself. He is not in the Dark Plane as the few mortals who know it refer to it."

Snape exhaled. He had not expected this answer and found himself lacking a plan for what to do next. He was slow gathering himself to leave. When he reached the door, the vampire joked in clear disappointment, "Stop in for a bite anytime."

Snape merely raised a brow at him as he tugged the door closed behind him.

- 888 -

The next day during Hogwarts breakfast hour when Voldemort would be out of the tower, Snape returned with four items in a small box and paced nervously while Harry examined them as they sat on the chessboard, which had become Harry’s worktable.

Snape uttered, “Hurry with that, I must return them before they are missed.”

“He must be overconfident,” Harry observed as he lifted out each item from the box: a locket, a watch, and a pair of cufflinks. Each felt all right but afterward he still had a sense of advanced decomposition. Harry stared at the chessboard before him in puzzlement.

“What it is?” Snape asked impatiently.

Harry lifted the box to look for a hidden compartment and said, “It’s the little box itself, even though it's wooden.”

The box did not want to deform while closed. Harry opened the lid and pressed hard on the frame of the box. After many tense minutes and a few droplets of sweat, the brass-strapped wood creaked and a ball of fire consumed the velvet lining, emitting a scream. Harry made himself hold onto it so he could quickly quench the flames. The lining and part of the wood inside were ruined.

“That will not be easily repaired,” Snape observed grimly.

“Same dark green velvet as the curtains around your bed,” Harry pointed out, half-teasing.

“Do you know how to sew?” Snape asked.

Harry, who as a child had tried to lengthen the life span of any clothing, nodded. “Well enough for this.”

“But not fast enough, I suspect. Breakfast ends in ten minutes.”

“Cut me a piece and let’s see.”

“You are not the one who must work their way past all of the barriers to return the box,” Snape harshly pointed out.

“Return it as it is, then,” Harry said. “Or don’t return it at all; let it go missing.”

Snape tossed the trinkets into the box where they clinked harshly, saying, “You have no idea how badly that would go over.” He departed hurriedly. Harry dearly hoped he returned quickly and did not run into trouble. He reminded himself that he could leave anytime. He was certainly being desperately missed back home. Leaving and returning would be complicated; explanations would be required and Harry did not believe he could argue successfully that he should come back to complete the prophecy here. As he stood there, before the fire, it felt like his prophecy now and he could not resist it.

Snape returned presently, seeming distracted.

“Go all right?” Harry asked.

Snape took this as an invitation to get directly in his face. “Finish this quickly or we are all doomed.”

“I plan to,” Harry said. “I’ll go out right now looking for the remaining ones.”

Minutes later he re-emerged from the toilet, passable as Argus Filch. Snape stood in the center of the room, arms crossed, looking smug. “You don’t require a distraction?”

“No,” Harry said.

“No?” Snape echoed doubtfully.

“No,” Harry insisted, “I have this.” He pulled out the Marauder’s Map and snapped it open with one hand.

“What is that?”

“Something I picked up from Filch’s office last trip out.”

“I’ve seen that before,” Snape breathed, sounding suspicious.

“Yes,” Harry said, activating it and waiting for the decorative and infamous printing listing the designers to die away and the Hogwarts corridors to appear. “It was my father’s.”

Snape’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “I should just turn you in now, shouldn’t I?”

“Right,” Harry said tiredly. “After all you’ve already done, for one thing.” Snape did not reply, just continued to glower. Harry lowered the map and said, “Look, I’m sorry my dad was cruel to you, but there’s nothing I can do about it now.” He wanted to say more, about Snape keeping his priorities straight, but did not wish to risk arguing about that. Snape continued to glare as though thinking things through. “Come on,” Harry said. “Hasn’t your dad done things you didn’t agree with?” Harry returned to studying the map. “I bet he has.”

Harry folded the map away. Filch was on the far end of the fourth floor and Harry wanted to take a look around on the lawn anyway. “I really am sorry,” Harry insisted, although he was understanding a little better right then his father’s animosity towards this man. “What more do you want from me?”

“That you don’t get me killed, I suppose.”

Harry departed with, “I’ll try.”

The Entrance Hall was full of students, so Harry did not pause to investigate the aversion he felt there. It was one more of the Crux Horridii, most likely, which meant there was still another to find. Harry wandered out into the cloudy day. Shouts drew him toward the Quidditch pitch where one of the Houses was practicing. Harry stood and watched, wondering that things could go on so normally with someone like Voldemort in charge. Perhaps most momentum was too strong even for a powerful evil wizard to stop. Harry wandered past the gameskeeper’s cabin where a small woman with a shiny bald head and wispy hair over her ears was tending to the pumpkin patch. Harry wondered where Hagrid was with a feeling of deep worry. Farther around the castle, just beside the rose garden he encountered a row of fancy cages set up like a miniature zoo or a menagerie. A pair of unicorns sat forlornly in the first cage, eyeing Harry anxiously, moving their tiny hooves spasmodically in lieu of running away. The next cage held a giant spider that snatched at Harry through the bars as he past, using a leg that clearly had taken a beating already. Harry looked down the row and hurried on to the largest one which had a kind of dirt hovel near the back of it.

“Hagrid,” Harry breathed.

The large man inside stirred. The half giant resembled a towering pile of untanned skins thrown together. Harry backed up a step. Hagrid could not be trusted to keep news to himself. Before Hagrid could rise, Harry quickly moved on, slowing only when he passed a cage with a brass sign reading Werewolf. This cage also had a hovel in the center, this one made of wood. The figure curled inside the hut did not stir when Harry called out, “Hey there!”

Harry could do nothing at all for them if he was caught here. Severely pained, he walked on, entering the bailey through the rear gate. Harry paced once around the fountain, forced to fish leaves out of it when a group of Slytherins came meandering through. His mind was moving too fast to be of use. Tossing a handful of rotted, slippery leaves aside, Harry strode to the door and into the castle.

The Entrance Hall was quieter now. Harry stood beneath the great hourglasses that recorded the house points and craned his neck to study them. He was feeling desperate and even knowing that would make him insufficiently careful, he waited for the hall to empty, lifted his wand, and said, “Accio Crux Horridus.” The jewels shifted and the glass of the Slytherin hourglass cracked in a spider-web pattern.

“Now you’ve done it,” Harry muttered to himself. He glanced around the hall. A few students were coming down the stairs but they ignored him in favor of their gossip and entered the Great Hall. Harry decided that fixing this would be Filch’s job, so he fetched a ladder from the nearest cupboard and climbed up to decorative wooden rack holding the row of glasses.

Harry assumed the emerald lodged at the center of the web of cracks was the one he wanted. It was near the bottom of the top conical section. Fortunately the Slytherins were far ahead and not many emeralds remained in the top portion. Just that moment ten blue sapphires flew upward in the next hourglass, putting Slytherin even farther ahead.

Harry adjusted the ladder to better reach the top and with some unlock spell attempts, finally got the glass cylinder to open. He had to wait for students to pass between attempts with his wand, and soon chilly sweat was dripping down his ribs under his robes. The ladder wasn’t high enough for him to reach inside or even aim his wand inside and he did not want to risk climbing up on the rack itself to do so, picturing in his mind the whole thing crashing to the floor. He also had to keep an eye on the Marauder’s Map to be certain the real Filch kept dallying in the attics.

Harry used a Hoover Hex to remove the emeralds above the one he wanted. The sucked up ones weighted down his robe pockets until they overflowed. He then used a whip charm to snag individual gems, feeling like his cousin Dudley must have when he tried to win a prize in one of those Muggle machines with a claw on the end of a crane.

Finally Harry snagged the correct one, feeling only relief, not joy at doing so. He slipped it into his jeans pocket and quickly hovered the remaining emeralds back inside. He then used a repair spell on the crack and retreated down the ladder on legs almost too shaky to stand, let alone climb. Keeping his head down, he properly snarled at some students while putting the ladder away.

He was back safely in the dungeon just a minute later, trying to get his breathing slowed to normal. He had taken the risk in the middle of the day because he had been angry about the menagerie, but he knew it had been foolhardy and that kept his heart pumping long afterward.

Snape strolled in as Harry was studying the gem in the firelight, pondering how he was going to deform a crystal to crush the soul inside of it.

“Another one?” Snape asked. “Ah,” he said. “A student complained that the total house points may be wrong, now I know why.”

“As if Slytherin could ever lose,” Harry mocked.

Snape grinned with no cheer. “I had a thought as to where another might be,” he said, raising Harry’s spirits. Snape went on to explain, “The Dark Lord was not always so sanguine regarding his position. He spent a month of the first year working in the lower dungeons on some project and did not let anyone down there for several years after.”

“Filch survived going down there, so it should be safe to take a look,” Harry said. “That would be the last one.”

Snape derisively corrected, “I thought you said six. You have the cup, the box, the emerald, and Nagini. Add to that the one in the lower dungeons and that still leaves one.”

“That would be me,” Harry said softly. “I’m the last one.”

Snape straightened and stared at him. “And do you plan to dispense with yourself using the same method you intend for Nagini?”

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Harry admitted in all honesty. This was a topic he had been ignoring for lack of any hope for a solution. “I don’t plan to stay around here. I’ll take myself far enough away that it won’t matter.”

Snape dropped into the overstuffed chair, saying, “I think I am going to regret helping you at all.”

“Why?” Harry asked. “You like living like this?”

“The living is fine,” Snape said, sounding vaguely spoiled.

“You’re lying,” Harry accused. He put the emerald down, intact, in the center of the empty chess board and asked, “Why was V- the Dark Lord allowed to continue as headmaster?”

“Why was he allowed?” Snape echoed derisively. “No one had any choice, Potter! What a ridiculous suggestion. Fudge believed it would keep him busy, and he was correct about that. Turns out he never lived down Albus refusing him a job.”

“Blimey,” Harry muttered. “It’s a wonder any students come.”

“Most Slytherins still send their children, even more families from the continent than before, and some still don’t sort into Slytherin, so we still have four houses. The castle spells have been reinforced and he has the Dementors and the Giants patrolling the forest. There is no chance to overcome him by force. Even a large force, should they wish to risk the children.”


Snape scoffed at Harry’s doubtful noise. “You will be dead before this is finished.”

“Neither can live while the other survives,” Harry quoted. “Or hadn’t you ever heard the ending of it?” he added mockingly. It was clear from Snape’s expression that he had not. “I can take care of myself; keep an eye on yourself.”

The hearth flared green and Harry barely had time to leap aside to press his back to the wall beside the mantelpiece before the dreaded slit-eyed, noseless, face moved into view in the flames.

“My Lord,” Snape greeted calmly. So calmly that Harry thought he deserved some kind of medal for it.

“Come to my tower, Snape, I would speak with you.”

Snape bowed and the awful face pulled back and the green flames flickered back to yellow. Snape glanced at Harry on his way to the door.

“What does he want?” Harry asked, whispering unnecessarily.

“I don’t know.”

Still pressed against the wall, chair-rail under his hands, Harry asked, “Does he summon you up like that often?”


Harry sucked in a deep, worried breath. Despite or because he still felt shaky, Harry said, “I’m going to look in the lower dungeon. But I may need your help.”

Snape’s brow lifted. He departed without replying.

Motivated heartily by fear of his safe haven being at risk, Harry checked the corridor in the wake of Snape’s departing and dashed around to the door to the lower dungeon and slipped through after hitting the rust-red hinges with a quick oiling charm. The smell of crypt and the sound of lapping water wafted up as he descended the long curved staircase carved directly out of the foundation stone. With a wave, Harry lit the torches at the bottom so he could see more than the faintly lit arched opening that led to the quay.

Meanwhile, Severus Snape strode up and around to the gargoyles with his normal purposeful speed. He had grown immune to fear, which was fortunate, since he had no room to spare for it right then if he was to survive the next ten minutes.

On the second floor staircase he encountered Minerva McGonagall, one of the few remaining professors from Dumbledore’s era. Originally, she had remained because MacNair, the Care of Magical Creatures instructor had her under an Imperio, but later after it weakened, she seemed to believe she could do more good remaining. A naïve notion, but one that events never seemed to shake, especially given how lost many of the students felt when they failed to sort into Slytherin.

McGonagall, held up two fingers as though to slow him down and he shook his head and pointed upward. She pulled her fingers back into her sleeve and appeared to shrink into herself as she let him pass.

The headmaster’s tower no longer had a turning staircase, but instead had a slide, and visitors were required to utilize a magic carpet to rise to the office. Snape stepped off the carpet at the top and it snapped its fringe at him before rolling up and storing itself against the wall to wait. An unwelcome guest would be unceremoniously rolled down beyond the second floor and into the bowels of the castle where it was rumored a basilisk awaited. Snape was not certain he believed that such a creature lived beneath the castle, but he certainly had seen his displeased master dispose of people utilizing the slide and its victims were never heard of again.

The snake-headed door knocker hissed and clacked on its own upon Snape’s arrival and the door creaked open. Sunlight stabbed in slashes around the thick curtains valiantly blocking it out. Voldemort sat at the broad desk, pondering a long scroll. A basket of scrolls sat on the desk edge, awaiting review. Snape saw the scene with fresh eyes borrowed from Harry’s ignorant questions and he almost laughed. But he held it in, not wishing to die so early in the conversation.

Voldemort said, “Two of your House’s students were caught off school grounds. In the Forest no less.”

Idiots, Snape thought to himself. Aloud, he said, “Do you wish me to punish them?”

“That failed to change them last time, so I have turned them over to Filch.”

Snape withheld a shudder. “Until what time, may I inquire? I may wish to add onto their tasks.” In reality, he wished to warn the Mediwizard so that he would be certain to be sober at that time.

Voldemort carefully re-rolled the parchment before him with his oddly knobbly hands. It was a if they were the hands of a elderly person with severe arthritis, but with smooth young skin. “I did not give him a limit, so it will be ten, when he must clear the corridors preceding the Dementors’ patrol.” His factual tone was most likely designed to lull Snape into letting his guard down.

Time passed as Voldemort continued reading the long scroll. He finished, rolled it up, tied it closed and turned to toss it into the hearth, burning heartily despite the September warmth of the tower. Snape waited without moving or speaking.

Finally, Voldemort said, “You sent Filch down to the lower dungeons. Why?” The question was flatter even than normal, setting Snape’s nerves on alert.

Using a tone carefully crafted to contain a hint of boredom and an underlying current of annoyance, Snape replied, “He crossed me too many times last week. Broke several rare potions open while cleaning up. I thought a pointless task would make a point, so to speak. The floor has undoubtedly re-flooded already.”

Voldemort did not look up from the wand he rolled between his fingertips. Snape had not seen him take it out, but he showed no reaction. His explanation may have been too long-winded, but there was no withdrawing it.

“The lower dungeons continue to be off-limits, Snape.”

Snape bowed as though mere acknowledgment was all that the situation required. “My mistake, my Lord. I certainly recall that used to be true, but . . . much time had passed since a reminder.” Snape feared that he was losing his touch at this game, having not practiced it in years for anything more than protecting the occasional student. That meant he was relying rather heavily on hopes that Potter, by some inconceivable chance, could actually complete the prophecy. The fact that the boy was alive at all made the odds something greater than zero, but not high enough to survive sloppiness.

Voldemort lifted one brow the way he did when annoyed with the likes of Crabbe or someone equally incompetent.

“The dungeon is your domain, Snape; I expect you to enforce the rules there that no one enter the lower dungeons or the cave leading to the lake.” He waved his hand dismissively as though wanting Snape out of his sight.

As the flying carpet unrolled and hovered and the office door slammed closed and the bolts thundered into place, Snape pondered that his shaky performance may have in fact lowered the Dark Lord’s guard and saved him from suspicion.

Shaking his head and trying to see hope while fearing its poison, he stepped onto the carpet and let it carry him downward.

In the lowest dungeon of the castle, Harry stood with the toes of his trainers hanging over the water of the small quay which was clearly now unused. No boats rested here but if he leaned far over, he could see two battered ones resting belly-up on the larger docking area used in the past by the First-Years. A bulky, rusty gate was closed across the entrance to the cave and the only other boats were sunken and sprouting plantlife.

Harry waited for his eyes to readjust to the darkness after staring outside at the lake, glaringly bright in comparison to the cave, even on a cloudy day. He examined the cave walls and then squinted, glasses pushed hard to his face to see across to the far side. A niche, perhaps just a natural indentation in the rock, kept catching his eye. Wand raised, Harry considered his options. He spelled a Lumos and shielded his own eyes from it. Something lay in the niche, weakly reflecting the blue light. Harry wasn’t watching thoroughly enough or he may have noticed eyes opening beneath his toes, peering up through the cold depths.

Grumbling to himself, Harry shook the Lumos out of his wand and paced. He could take a boat over and look. So, leaning dangerously around the corner of the wall, he hovered one of the rickety old boats around from the other entrance and gently down on the quayside at his feet. He manually rolled the badly peeled white hull over and hovered it into the water. A chill went through him as he held the boat against the rock edge, and considered that he should get help before going further. The oars were narrowed with rot, but serviceable. Harry set these into the boat; the thunk of them hitting the bottom echoed around the cave and he held his breath and waited to see if anyone heard. A minute passed before he breathed normally again.

Harry crouched at the quay edge, one hand holding the bow steady, while he considered whether to get help or just get moving. Snape may not even return, Harry considered. This may be the only chance.

Harry awkwardly stepped into the rocky boat and shoved off. He struggled to mount the oars into the rusty locks and began rowing across. His sense of cursedness increased as he approached the other side, giving him a joyous lift even as it made him cringe.

It was difficult to hold the boat against the rock wall while standing up to see into the niche, but Harry managed long enough to see that there was a metal ring on a chiseled hatch in the bottom face of the niche. Harry tugged upward on the ring, nearly sending the boat out from under himself. He had to shove with his hands against the rock and jump for the boat to catch it and prevent himself from tumbling into the water. The boat sailed back out to the middle of the cave before coasting to a stop with him in the murky, smelly bottom of it.

Harry’s sense of alarm increased and he looked around the cave repeatedly for danger, but failed to look down into the water. He gazed instead at his trouser knees, which were soaked with green, slippery water. At the bottom of the lake more things were rousing, dead eyes snapping open to stare distantly upward.

Using the oars, Harry paddled back to the cave wall below the niche. He cast his mind back to Ravenclaw’s book and used a demolition spell around the metal ring. Loose stone spattered into the water and into the boat, thundering, until Harry pushed with his feet to keep the boat away from the rock wall and apply some Silencing Charms.

The door at the top of the steps opened and footsteps sounded, just as Harry, perched to look into the demolished niche, finally looked down into the dark water. Harry’s grip on the rock became tenacious with panic as he stared down into an army of dead white faces rising dreamlike toward the surface.

“Potter, you could perhaps make enough noise to be heard in the Entrance Hall if you worked at it—” Snape’s voice criticized in a hiss.

“Get a broomstick!” Harry insisted, fingertips clinging to the rock as the boat inextricably drifted again away from the cave wall, taking his feet with it. “Hurry!”

Snape raised his wand and used a weak blasting curse to shove the boat back under Harry's legs, knocking the head of the dead man just clearing the water. Harry leapt for the disintegrating niche and grabbed up the only thing that did not feel like rock, liberating a small golden box from the debris. More figures were rising. Harry tossed the box into the boat and heaved on the oars, but they had arms and hands clinging to them, so he moved no where. A hand came over the gunwale, tipping the boat dangerously toward the water. Harry lifted the oar to beat the hand off and then shoved against the cave wall with the oar, moving the boat a little. The other oar was tugged overboard and thrashing ensued as it disappeared beneath the choppy surface.

Harry glanced back at the quay, needing help. Snape stood, wand extended, gaping in chilled alarm at the figures rising out of the water. Harry took another swing with the oar at someone he tried not to recognize despite how familiar they looked. He was not certain what spell to use that would not risk upsetting the boat and he did not want to lose the last oar if he let go to use his wand.

The boat suddenly surged toward the quay, sending Harry into the wet belly of it beside the golden box. The surge also shed the worst of the clawing hands. The boat ran hard into the stone edge and a fiercely gripping hand hauled Harry up onto the quay.

“You did not exaggerate when you said you required help,” Snape muttered before issuing a stunning curse from his wand that slowed the figures from clambering up onto the ledge after them; their bleached and torn clothing dragging on their limbs, dripping. “Inferi,” Snape breathed. “Of all the horrific things.”

Harry joined him in casting spells to keep them at bay as they backed up to the staircase. “So, you did not know about this?” Harry asked, knocking a white-haired heavy figure back, which took down his companions as well.

At the top of the stairs Snape held Harry back from the door and opened it to check that the corridor was clear. He gestured abruptly for Harry to follow, and Harry gratefully did so.

“Keep your head down,” Snape hissed.

Harry leaned on the door to press it closed, keeping his face ducked and averted. Something thumped into the door from the other side and water sloshed under it.

Snape sneered to someone, apparently a student, “Mr. Callow, fetch a mop, will you? The rest of you clear out or you will all be assisting.” Harry was extremely relieved right then that Snape could wield that dreadful tone that even now, made him grateful it was not aimed his way. The door thumped again. Snape hit it with an Impervious Charm, a Silencing Charm and several more things since Harry was using one hand to hold the door and the other to hold the golden box. The door fell silent and still. Harry released his hand from the damp wood slowly.

The student returned at a run and Snape set him to mopping with strict orders not to open or touch the door itself. Harry snuck off while the hapless Slytherin had his head down, mopping inexpertly at the fluid slipping in under the door. After Harry turned the corner, Snape snapped his fingers at the boy and ordered, “Enough. Leave it.”

“Army of the flippin’ dead,” Harry muttered as he tried to shake off chills by settling before the fire. The golden box joined the emerald on the chess board. Harry rubbed his hair back and calmed himself. “Let’s hope they can’t get out of there,” Harry said as Snape approached.

“The cave is barred to the lake and the path to the Entrance Hall bricked in long ago.”

“Still, let’s finish this quickly, just in case.” Harry held the emerald to the firelight as he spoke.

Snape crossed his arms and said, “Just like that? Just finish it? You think it so easy?”

Harry did not want the questions that would follow his pointing out that he had done it before, more than once. “I’ll manage. Watch yourself, ‘cause I can’t do both," Harry said garnering a disbelieving glare. Harry turned to contemplate the box. It had the seal of a cross on it. “Ah, a traditionalist,” Harry observed.

“What do you mean by that?”

Harry opened the box. Inside was a carefully preserved digit. “Its an old reliquary. Fitting.” Harry dusted off the plaque inside. “Hey, it’s St. Mungo’s finger.” Feeling punchy from too much stress, Harry said, “Should be grateful it isn't some other part of him . . .”

He carefully lifted the leathery thing from its setting, forced to overcome both curse discomfort and general dislike of the task. He squeezed the finger in his hand with great concentration, then jerked as it burst into flame and let out a wail. He tossed it on the fire and brushed his hand on his robe. “Sorry Mungo.”

Harry set the box aside and turned back to the emerald, saying, “I assume you don’t want to return this box . . . ?”

Snape shook his stringy veil of hair, eyes fixed on the jewel.

Harry pressed the emerald between his fingers to no effect. He returned to staring at it, unsure how to proceed. In the end he knelt on the hearthstone, gem against the slate, held between his index finger and thumb, the fireplace poker point aimed at the flattest side of the jewel. He crushed with his mind before bringing the poker down hard. If he were to hit his fingers, his concentration would be broken and he was not certain what would happen then. To be possessed by Voldemort did not appeal, but the path home led through this task. His aim was true. The flare burst from the emerald as it was crushed and a thousand tinny cries of despair drifted around the room before dying out. Harry barely pulled his fingers away from the flame in time and had to suck on his fingers to relieve the sting of the burn. When the hearth cooled, he collected the green salt-like gem fragments into his robe pocket and sat back in the overstuffed chair to think.

“One left,” Snape reminded him helpfully, needling Harry with an accuracy only he could manage.

“Don’t I know it,” Harry returned, fingers rubbing his chin as he contemplated what he was going to do next. His thoughts came around nicely with a glance at the clock showing half past four. “I’ll finish it tonight, at dinner.”

“Will you then?” Snape asked sarcastically.

“Just don’t give it away.”

“YOU just don’t give me away,” Snape countered. “You are going to fail and I don’t wish by any means to go down with you.”

With a small smile, Harry said, “Such confidence.” He stood then and with a quick check of the Marauder's Map, said, “I have to something to do before the Dark Lord Death Day Ball this evening.” He smiled more broadly. He wanted to go home and he could taste the freedom to do so, it was so close. “I’ll come in after the plates are cleared but before pudding is served. It will be over soon.”

Snape glared at him as though questioning Harry’s sanity.

“This is my destiny, Severus,” Harry said, stepping to the toilet to don his disguise.

“Did I give you permission to use my first name?” Snape snarled lowly.

Harry turned and gave a small bow, still smiling. “Professor.”

Dinner in the Great Hall progressed much the same as all the others the last five years. The castle felt colder than it should. The sky reflected in the magic ceiling slid by more brooding than the one outside as though the accumulated soot stained the magic. The students kept their heads down as a few owls swept in and down in a spiral.

Snape had by far the toughest job of any Head of House. His House table was full and even overflowed into the half-empty Ravenclaw one beside it. Only the Slytherins would dare make trouble during a meal. Snape wanted none this evening.

With a foreboding that made his stomach rebel against eating, Snape watched the main course appear. He had to eat, had to behave normally. He was more grateful than most nights to be on the very end of the staff table, overlooking his own table. MacNair and Umbridge sat on either side of the headmaster, pandering to him nonstop.

Snape served himself beans and potatoes with casual uncaring to hide what otherwise would be an utterly unacceptable shaking in his hands. He gave two students, Yuba and Oppeum, sharp looks when they furtively glanced his way. They looked to be plotting something out of a black velvet sack and clearly were checking if he had noticed. After seeing they were observed they placed whatever it was on the floor and bent their heads together.

Snape lifted his fork and tried to eat. He very nearly could not swallow even the thinnest runny edge of the lumpy mashed potatoes. What was bothering him so? He certainly should hold no concern for that miserably annoying son of his worst enemy. And at one level he did not. It was not concern for Potter that closed his throat and made his heart race beneath his carefully crafted calm exterior; it was hope. Hope had slipped in despite no conscious room for it in his soul. His fingers trembled in fear at losing that hope again.

Damn you Potter

Snape made a show of eating. No one paid the least attention to him; certainly the headmaster did not appear to, but often that meant he would later recount your every move back to you, expecting an explanation for each small thing. Snape thought he could handle that, if necessary. Certainly he could insist that he hated Potter to his very core. Yes, he could honestly state, even under Veritaserum, that he hated the boy . . . after Voldemort defeated him in just ten minutes time; hopefully the Dark Lord did not inquire if Snape also hated what the boy stood for.

Author's Note: I see you are all rubbing your eyes and waking back up after Deathly Hallows. Welcome back everyone!

Yeah a cliff-hanger. I so love them.

Next Chapter: 12

Harry reached the point halfway down the hall and he tapped his hand on his wand and pointed at the banners, snapping consecutively the Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Gryffindor out to the same size as the Slytherin ones. "All houses are equal here," Harry boomed as best he could. He wished he had a deeper voice. Fervent whispers rustled through the hall as though blown through by a breeze.

As Harry approached the end of the long House tables, Voldemort derisively asked, "Who dares challenge me?"

Chapter 12: Adopted Destiny
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Chapter 12 — Adopted Destiny

Harry, without disguise, strolled through empty corridors to the statues that guarded the headmaster's tower. The hall leading there had been redecorated and now black curtains covered the walls, rendering the path tunnel-like with just a torch flickering at the end. The gargoyles sat unmoving and the doorway was open but there were no stairs. He put his head inside and called upward in parseltongue, then listened. Deep beneath him he felt a rumble and glanced down, noticing that the curving slide that had replaced the stairs spiraled away into the floor and darkness. The Basilisk would still be down there, he realized, since he had not been around as a Second Year to kill it. Voldemort apparently fed it often, since it called out with its deeper-than-Nagini's voice that it would appreciate a meal.

Harry feared using a spell so close to the headmaster's tower, so getting an idea he raced back to the main staircase and Accioed a barrel of cooking oil from the direction of the kitchens. He brought this back and after pouring it over the slide as high up as he could reach, he called to Nagini again and moments later, a slithering sound could be heard, but he could not be certain if it arose from above or below, so he backed off and, wand held at ready, waited for something to appear in the doorway. After half a minute of thumping and sliding, one of Nagini's coils slid into view from above. Harry, fearing being seen by her, ducked against the wall beside the still gargoyle and pressed himself there. Flailing sounded and more thumping and then a rapid sliding receded down into the bowels of the castle.

Harry stuck his head in the doorway and listened to the hissing that ensued and then the screeching and then the silence that followed. He called down in parseltongue and heard only the deep voice of the Basilisk. With a sharp exhale and glance at his watch, Harry hurried off.

Harry next strode into the kitchens with the attitude of head elf. “Attention, all of you!” he shouted. He scanned the array of bumpy heads framed by tall pointed ears, hoping to find Dobby, but did not. He spotted Grimpy, whom he recognized. He was by far the stoutest of the school’s house-elves and always eager to give Ron food when his friend asked.

“Grimpy,” Harry said. The elf blinked in surprise. “Get everyone out of here, now.”

“You is being Harry Potter?” Grimpy asked. A few of the elves gasped. When Harry nodded, more a bow, really, Grimpy turned his long-nosed profile one way and then the other as though considering his instructions.

“Come back in ten minutes,” Harry said to the kitchen elves, lowering his bargaining position. They shifted from foot to foot, nervous. Harry gave up on being nice. “I’m going to present you all with old socks of Dumbledore’s if you don’t leave now!” He pulled out a pink and green pair he had found stuffed in the Mrs. Pince’s desk drawer when he was looking for the key to the Restricted Section. He brandished them at the elves. “You have ten seconds or I start distributing socks!”

The elves disappeared with a chorus of pops! Harry sighed and with several great heaves, shoved the long marble-topped tables aside to make room for two tall spell columns that, when they were finished, radiated prickly blue light even to the most remote nook of the vast kitchens.

The puddings sat on the longest table, on small overlapping plates, waiting to be magically served. Harry dipped a finger in one as he passed and then frowned. “Hopefully the food improves with Voldemort gone.”

Harry initiated the spell he wanted, but stopped before the last line of it. He left the blue towers burning merrily to themselves, the air between them electrified and sizzling, and stepped out into the corridor leading to the Hufflepuff dungeon, but instead of walking up the stairs, he Dark-Plane Apparated silently to the Entrance Hall, just before the center doors. He stared at the marred old wood, took a deep breath, and adjusted his grip on his wand. His heart fluttered, inducing lightheadedness like it had before his first Quidditch match. Harry charmed his robes to bright blue, feeling he needed to represent some team, even an absent one. Beyond the doors, at the end of the staff table, Snape rubbed his thumb over his chin, experiencing similar cardiac symptoms, but no feelings of team spirit.

Harry pulled his hood far forward over his head, raised his wand, and blasted the doors open, following quickly through them before they could bounce closed.

“Lord Voldemort!” Harry addressed the surprised room and especially the slit-eyed man facing him in the center of the distant table. As he crossed the threshold of the tables, two forbidden curses formed behind him, aimed his way. Sharp watering came to Harry’s eyes as he squelched the spells, which made the magic explode inside the casters' bodies. A few students gasped; the appearance of taking out one’s opponents, without lifting a wand let alone turning to look at them was impressive all right, but Harry’s feet had lost their marching cadence, and for that he berated himself.

Harry reached exactly halfway down the hall and he tapped his hand on his wand and pointed at the banners, snapping consecutively the Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Gryffindor out to the same size as the Slytherin ones. “All houses are equal here,” Harry boomed as best he could. He wished he had a deeper voice. Fervent whispers rustled through the hall as though blown through by a breeze.

As Harry approached the end of the long House tables, Voldemort derisively asked, “Who dares challenge me?”

Harry stopped and tugged off his hood, wand aimed steadily. “Harry Potter.”

The frantic whispering reached a quick crescendo then fell to stillness, the audience fearful of attracting attention or of just missing any detail. The closest Hufflepuffs leaned or scrambled away from where Harry stood defiant. Voldemort’s eyes flickered with utter disbelief, which gave Harry a painful stab at the realization that his counterpart truly was dead in this Plane. Just as well he himself had stayed, then. No one else could do this.

Voldemort’s wand flashed and Harry met the Disemboweling Scissors Hex with a block because that was ingrained habit and their wands and their paired cores locked together. Harry felt the first shudder of doubt; if the wands had not responded to their common origin, he was not sure he could have countered that spell well enough. To say the spell was loaded, did not cover it; it carried power equivalent to every wizard in the Ministry added together.

The ball of hex energy hovered between them, but Harry, familiar with this, forced it toward Voldemort, while mocking him to hide his sudden nerves, “Ha! Albus Dumbledore tricked you and assured that you would have a wand to match mine!”

Harry’s words had the effect he had hoped and the hex exploded just in front of Voldemort, forcing the tall, boney wizard to duck awkwardly. MacNair was caught in the backwash and flew backward in his chair to smack the wall. Umbridge tumbled from her chair with a squeak. Harry laughed. It echoed around the hall’s tall buttresses, reflecting back maniacally, sounding nothing like him. The room held a collective breath. Some of the teachers made a run for it, including McGonagall, who took up a defensive position at the top of the Gryffindor table.

Voldemort said, “You are surrounded, Potter.”

Another spell came Harry’s way and again they locked and Harry pressed his advantage of experience. Voldemort was standing now, his cloak and robes billowing in an unseen wind. He dodged this curse too as it erupted. This time, Harry used the gap, and very fast speaking, to complete Salazar’s spell while looping his wand over his head.

The hall erupted in blue electricity that crawled madly over the walls before sinking into a cold glow in the stones. Half the Death-Eater laden staff table flopped to the floor in fits of hallucinatory horror along with several students. The others began to flee in earnest, lining the walls and pounding out the doors at the far end. Voldemort stood firm, shouting in fury, “My forbearer invented that spell. You thought to take me down with it?” He tossed a curse at Harry, which Harry dodged, letting it bounce along the floor between the tables. More students scattered to get out of the way. Some remained pinned where they were, forks in hand, bound in trances of amazement.

“Good!” Harry shouted as he rolled to his feet. “I prefer to take you out personally.” He shot a curse at Voldemort that was blocked far too easily, but it let him dodge back to where fewer students were in harm’s way behind him. Harry tried to pry open the Dark Plane, but it resisted his call; the castle resisted him too. He bit his lip.

Covering for his failure, he met Voldemort’s Crucio with his own and this time they were spell locked for much longer, the curse energy hovering in the middle ground, neither holding an advantage for long. Voldemort was a fast learner, but he broke the spell off himself, possibly because of impatience. Harry dug desperately inside himself for enough pain and hatred to crack open the Dark Plane; it was surprisingly hard to find a sufficient amount. As a distraction while he worked at that, he said, “I’m your destiny, Tom.”

Voldemort’s eyes glowed even brighter red and he tossed an angry and less powerful spell at Harry, who matched it and held fast to the bound spells. “You are dead,” Voldemort stated. It was unclear if this was a prediction of the future or an established statement of fact.

The spells were still locked, Harry propped up his tiring wand arm with his other hand. “Funny, I don’t feel dead!” he mocked. “Perhaps you’re not the only one who can’t be killed.”

Voldemort broke off the spell, startled by that statement. He tried to Legilimize Harry, making his scar burn.

Breathing heavier, Harry lowered his wand and found the pain he needed. He found a lonely boy, beaten down by his aunt and uncle with no hope for a life of his own.

“This one’s for Lily and James,” Harry announced in a snarl as he overcame the castle’s weakened spells and glistening black creatures poured out of the seam between the right-hand wall and the floor. Most of the remaining students ran or leapt up on the tables. Those floudering on the floor of the hall, incapacitated by Salazar’s spell, were ravaged. Blood began to flow into the cracks between the hall’s worn stones. Harry could spare no attention for Snape or McGonagall. He held his wand on Voldemort, who gaped at this freakish invasion.

“Don't know that spell, do you, Tom?” Harry shouted. Voldemort was forced to defend himself from the hordes, but he glanced up at Harry, letting a few crawl his robes before he cursed them and they fell with queer squeals. Harry went on, voice returning to maniacal, “Here’s a Riddle for you . . . Harry Potter is darker than you are!”

Just as Voldemort swung his wand to again blast the creatures trying to devour him, Harry snagged the dark wizard, bodily, with a whip charm and jerked him over the staff table and into a skidding stop on the floor. Harry dealt with Voldemort trying to aim his wand by stomping on his forearm. Voldemort dropped his wand but it zipped back to his hand. Harry stomped on his hand instead, sending a curse wide that smashed the upper windows, raining down a spray of glass.

Voldemort’s eyes betrayed him. Harry spoke, wand at Voldemort’s throat, “Yes, you fear death, don’t you? But you know, by doing so you never actually live.”

Black-bodied, disgusting creatures, part crustacean, reptile, and rodent, encircled the two of them. They smacked their jaws and scratched the stone floor musically with their absurdly long claws.

Harry, calmer, said, “And now you are going to die, consumed by evil greater than yourself.”

Voldemort, by attempting to not betray himself, did so with his flat and almost confident expression. Harry chuckled and reached into his robe pocket. He scattered the smashed emerald powder onto the chest of Voldemort’s robe. “I destroyed them all,” he said, trying not to smile too broadly.

Voldemort rolled his bare head to peer around himself in horror. The stench was distressing, let alone the vision of so many bared, needle-like teeth.

Harry said with queer pleasantness. “It’s like they haven’t eaten in an eternity . . . which I happen to know is not true.”

Voldemort thrashed then, lifting Harry’s foot with his arm, Harry hit him with a blasting curse that stunned him back flat again. “This is the end for you,” Harry promised. “You are released from this un-life of yours. Considering what my options are . . .” He thought of his Voldemort, trapped in a mere Muggle existence. “. . . think of it as a gift.”

Shifting all his weight atop Voldemort’s wand hand, Harry used a Sectumsempra Curse to slash open Voldemort’s chest and then leapt aside to let the creatures pile on. The thrashing figure was dragged toward the wall, trailing bright red, and Harry Sent them all away, just as the upraised hand visible over the slithering black bodies drooped and released the wand it held.

The hall fell quiet after the creatures sank away into the stone and Voldemort’s wand rolled to a quiet stop in a deep swath of blood. Several more smeared rivelets led to the right-hand wall along the staff table and in longer streaks from the Slytherin house table. The scent was like a butcher’s might have, healthful still, but unnerving. Someone was sobbing nearby. A Ravenclaw boy clung to a bench, holding his broken leg. Blood drizzled from bites on his hand. Harry moved toward him to help, but the boy panicked and tried to escape him, falling under the table.

“It’s all right,” Harry insisted, not wishing to scare the boy just to fix his leg. McGonagall swept over and Quiesced the boy and hovered him onto the tabletop. She turned then and said, “Harry,” with overwhelming emotion.

Harry gave a little bow and said, “Headmistress,” without much thought. The comment made McGonagall stand straight in surprise.

Snape slowly came up behind McGonagall. She turned and started, saying, “You survived, Severus.”

Sharp and annoyed, as always, “Yes, of course.”

Harry looked beyond him, barely giving him a glance, insistent still on not implicating him. Harry moved to repair the boy’s leg while he was still quieted and while McGonagall went to attend to others. Finished with that, he looked around. Other students had taken refuge on the tabletops, one still brandished the stone goblet she had used as a weapon. A few stalwart friends were slinking back in to help the stragglers. Harry remembered the menagerie, turned, and strode out the door, ignoring McGonagall trying to call him back.

Outside, a light drizzle floated in the still air, soaking Harry’s robes. His robes' bright sky color darkened as they grew damp and as the Morphmagus spell wore off.

At the largest cage, Harry called out to Hagrid, who roused slowly. Once the giant heaved to his feet, bent low because of the cage, he stomped up to the bars and lowered his bruised brow. He took a long sniff and said, “Harry?” with empty belief.

“Yeah, Hagrid, it’s me. Stand back, I’ll open the cage.” Harry, after much urging to get Hagrid to move, blasted the lock. The door opened, but Hagrid remained standing where he was, perhaps finding freedom not entirely comprehensible.

Harry left him to recover and went down the line on the left, opening every cage except the giant spider’s. At the unicorns, one ran off, but the other was lame and it did not get beyond the cage door. It floundered on the ground, eyes wide and alarmed by Harry’s presence.

“Hagrid,” Harry yelled to the half-giant. “Come help the unicorn!”

This got Hagrid moving. Cooing, Hagrid stooped to lift the creature in his broad hands and then stumbled off to the forest carrying it, glancing backward repeatedly, still disbelieving. Harry moved down the line of facing cages, releasing a beaked gibbus, a vampire duck, a hippogriff that was mostly likely Buckbeak, except it lunged at Harry before scampering off and taking flight on wings that lacked several major feathers. Harry reached the werewolf cage with great trepidation. He destroyed the lock and called out, “Hallo!”

Slitted eyes snapped open and a shaggy form put its head out of the wooden hovel.

“Remus,” Harry said, surprised to find this Lupin appeared partially werewolf outside the full moon as well.

Lupin limped slowly out of the cage, gazing quizzically at Harry. “Can’t be,” he whispered. “Can’t be.”

Harry felt a twinge at his ruse, but it could not be helped. “It’s Harry Potter,” he said in a reassuring manner .

“You look just like James,” he whispered hoarsely. He then jerked and looked about in fear as though an attack may be imminent.

Harry turned to look as well and found a familiar pink Mohawk approaching. “Tonks,” Harry greeted the witch, with too much familiarity it turned out. She peered at him suspiciously. “Harry Potter,” he said with a little bow, by way of introduction. “You’re one of the Aurors, right?” he went on, masking the pain he felt seeing her prematurely aged and careworn face.

“Yes,” she said flatly and turned to Lupin, who had taken to clinging to the bars of his cage, looking away from both of them as though ashamed. Tonks’ pained gaze fixed on Lupin's tattered back.

“Can you take care of him?” Harry asked, nearly pleading. He wished to leave, but these new burdens were threatening that.

Tonks did not reply, only moved to put a hand on Lupin’s arm to draw him away from the metal bars. Lupin resisted but finally leaned on her. Harry felt a twinge of jealousy and turned away.

“What did you do in there?” Tonks asked Harry over Lupin's shoulder. She sounded mistrustful.

Harry suppressed more disappointment. He did not want to feel the need to make her understand. “Something I should have done a long time ago,” he replied, voice harder than he intended. He was not going to argue over, or justify anything he had done. Her eyes gave away that she saw only the blood on top of too much other blood.

“Not really Harry, is it?” Lupin asked faintly, scratching his pointed ear with one clawed finger. "Can't be."

Harry walked away, back to the Great Hall.

A Ministry retinue was mincing here and there in the Hall, oohing and ahing over what they were hearing described and seeing in damage. Harry strode up to the familiar, brown-coated figure and stopped in his face, just as he turned at the sound of advancing footsteps.

“Oh!” Fudge said in surprise. “Potter?” he prompted, befuddled.

“Don’t blow this, Fudge.” Harry jerked his head in the direction of Lucius Malfoy standing amongst Crouch, Jorkins, Percy, and Bones. “Clean up the likes of him. All of them.”

Malfoy’s mouth twitched and he drew himself up taller and set his cane before himself, one hand over the other.

“He’s one of them,” Harry said. “And there are most likely others. Get them out of the Ministry, into prison. If you don’t, I’ll be back.”

Harry turned, waylaid, by Fudge’s bruised pride. “Now, see here, Mr. Potter, if that’s who you really are!”

Harry spun back around, unnaturally pale eyes blazing. “You let this go on,” Harry snarled. Fudge’s mouth snapped closed. Harry’s gaze took in the group. “All of you, catering to evil.” Fury was taking Harry to another level of his mind, and uncertain what he may find there, he made himself step down away from it, tearing parts of his ego it felt like, in the process. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Snape standing with the surviving teachers, hawk-like gaze taking in Harry’s every move.

Harry gestured at the smashed window, the darkening bloody streaks on the floor, the empty robes and hats, the littered bones, cleaned bright white. “This is nothing,” Harry said, stepping closer into Fudge’s simpering face. “You should see me when I get really upset. Clean up the Ministry or I will be back to do it for you.”

With that, Harry stalked out the door to the hall, out the door to the castle—propped open with a bench from the hall—and away across the lawn. The lake stretched out before him, sparkling in the evening light in the spots where the clouds were breaking up. He could leave now, but he felt less than himself, and he wanted to shake that before facing what was certain to be a crisis at home, sparked by his absence. Buckbeak sailed into view, angling away from the hills to stay over the water, a grey reflection skipping over the waves. Harry heard voices approaching, arguing as only political figures could. He dropped into the Dark Plane to avoid them.

Chilled, he returned to Snape’s office where he imagined it would be warm. He pulled a chair over to the fire, snagging the sherry bottle from a shelf on the way past. He sat, feet propped upon a trunk, using the hypnotic sound of the fire and the stomach warming effects of the liquor to let go of the last few hours, working his way up to letting go of the last few days in total. His robes dried and finished deepening back to black. When he left for good this place would cease to exist. Given that, being haunted by it would be tantamount to a psychosis.

The door to the office swung open and Snape, appearing distracted, stepped in and did not notice Harry until he was halfway across the room. He scuffed to a halt, exhibiting rare uneasiness. “You are still here,” he stated.

“I hadn’t tried your sherry,” Harry explained, voice gentle because his meditation had helped set his mind and emotions straight.

Snape crossed to the desk and stared down at it before stalking to the door to his chambers. His mouth worked before he said, “I was perhaps remiss in not offering it.”

Harry felt saddened and adrift at being feared by this man, by any version of him. “Have I ever, ever threatened you?” Harry asked.

Snape turned to him, studying him.

Harry said, “I owe you my life.”

Snape’s shoulders rounded and his movements were less jerky when he came over to borrow the sherry bottle. He poured himself a full tumbler and handed the bottle back graciously, making Harry laugh lightly. “You think I buy that from you?” he asked and then regretted the teasing, since Snape’s black gaze flickered with fear again.

“You really think I’d do something untoward to you?” Harry asked, badly needing to settle this.

Snape did not reply, but his eyes did. They answered in the affirmative. At Harry’s prompting of “Severus?” Snape spoke: “I saw what you did to get even . . .” He trailed off.

“Ah,” Harry said, understanding. “You mean for my parents.” Harry swallowed the half tumbler of sherry he held. He tilted his head back to stare at the cobwebs on the ceiling of Snape’s office. “I’ve forgiven you for that.”

“Really?” Snape laughed uneasily. “Why?”

Harry rubbed his head and said. “You saw what happened in the Great Hall. If I didn’t find the power to forgive you, I would have lost myself long ago. I wouldn’t have power over myself and I'd self-destruct.”

Snape considered that and added uneasily, “And you apologized for your father, no less.”

"Of course," Harry said, and stood, finally approaching the mood to depart for home.

“Where are you going now?” Snape asked, sounding casual and for all the world like he was dying to know the answer.

“Far away. Very far. Keep an eye on Fudge will you? Hold his feet to the Caeruleus fire.”

“I don’t have much power, Potter,” Snape pointed out. “Especially now. Before, I had rather a lot.”

“You're good at surviving no matter what. It’s better this way and you know it,” Harry said. "If I stay, things will only be fixed for appearances, for my sake. Not really fixed." He set his tumbler on the desk and said, “I’m going and I don’t intend to ever return. Do take care of yourself.”

Snape bowed faintly, doubt tinting his eyes even darker. Harry disappeared without a sound.

Clearheaded and determined, Harry found his way opposite his own house and tumbled sideways, focused on a painful affection for his real home.

- 888 -

"Severus!" Candide shouted frantically from the balcony where she peered over the rail down at Harry, strewn half across the rug below.

Snape came out of the library and, after spotting Harry, dashed over to him. He placed his hand on his shoulder to roll him on his side and icy sparkles haloed Snape's hand against the dark fabric. "He is half frozen again." Raising his head, he called out, "Get a blanket and heat it, quickly." He pushed Harry onto his back, setting off swirls of crackling in the ice clinging to Harry's robes. "And there is some odd residual magic still upon him."

At a run Candide brought a heated blanket and helped Snape lift and wrap Harry bodily in it. The frost coating the tips of Harry's locks melted where his limp head rested on Snape's robes. Once lifted off the floor, Snape had not put his charge down again. He pressed his hand to Harry's scarred forehead.

"Is he warming up?" Candide asked.

Snape nodded. "Get some hot water."

Harry woke groggily. He could not move his arms for the heavy blanket bundled around them and his face was pressed into robes scented with Hogwarts and potions.

He was home.

And he was being clutched with surprising fierceness. Perhaps he did not fully appreciate how much he was cherished, he considered. He might be able to stir, but he did not, enjoying the warmth too much.

A hand ran through Harry's hair and with a spell he was forced to swallow warm water. The hungry heat of it seeped through the very center of him and he opened his eyes to Snape's dark concerned ones.

Candide was speaking. "And I contacted the Auror's office."

Snape started at that, looking away from Harry. "I wish you had not."


"We need to protect Harry from everyone." Figures Apparated into the Hall. Snape finished with, "Even the Ministry."

The Auror's descended upon them, led by Tonks, who crouched close. "Harry, what happened?"

Harry opened his mouth and tried to concoct a reasonable story that was not the truth. He lifted his head but could not yet hold it up without severe strain.

"More water," Harry requested, to stall.

He was propped up better in the crook of Snape's shoulder and given several more sips which warmed him enough to let him sit up, but Snape's grip seemed uninterested in even allowing him to try.

Harry cleared his throat and said, "I was poisoned," which made Snape's grip tighten even more. Harry closed his eyes. "I tried to Apparate to Severus but . . . I missed."

Tonks, from close by said, "Well, of course, you can't Apparate to Hogwarts. You shouldn't have even been able to depart."

Harry shook his head, formulating a modified story with effort. "I tried really, really hard. I ended up in a different potioneer's dungeon."

Silence fell over the listeners. "Where?" Tonks asked.

"I'm not sure," Harry said. "Somewhere . . . somewhere in Eastern Europe. Latvia maybe. He was good at potions though . . . he cured the poison. Which was in the pumpkin juice in the tea room."

Mr. Weasley gestured to Shacklebolt to take note of that.

Snape asked, in a manner that Harry could not read as helping a ruse or honest curiosity, "Was the castle small with two tall towers close together?"

"Er, yeah," Harry said, willing to accept any help to explain himself.

To the others, Snape said, "I know a wizard there by the name of Aldaris." To Harry he asked, "Do you remember the name Jazeps?"

"Uh . . ." Harry stalled and Snape caught on quickly.

Snape turned back to the crouching assembled and said quickly, "He is a hermit, corresponds only with those far enough away to be deemed not direct competition."

Harry broke in with a partial truth. "He was very good about the poison, but then he didn't want me to leave. Slipped me potions to keep me disoriented."

Tonks motioned as though this were horrendous. "No," Harry corrected. "He was nice, enough, sort of, and he saved my life. I think he was just . . . lonely or something."

Shacklebolt leaned in closer. "So, you don't want us to track him down, then, you are saying."

"No," Harry said in relief. "He saved my life; it's all right."

"How did you get back?" Mr. Weasley asked.

"I Apparated."

"From Latvia!" several people exclaimed at once.

"I concentrated really hard," Harry insisted.

"Wonder you didn't get Splinched worse than you did. You all right? No missing parts?" Shacklebolt asked.

Harry sat up and was allowed to. "Yeah, I'm fine. I didn't feel very good when I first arrived, but I'm better now."

"Don't make a habit out of Apparating so far," Mr. Weasley ordered him.

"I won't, believe me," Harry said.

Snape helped Harry to his feet, but steered him to the nearest couch. Of Mr. Weasley he asked, "Do you need to debrief him or can we keep him here?"

"No, I think we're set. I'll call a press conference and get everything straight."

After welcomes and wishes that he feel better and congratulations on making it home from so far away, the three Ministry people departed.

Snape turned to Harry and said, "What actually happened?" gathering a startled look from Candide.

Harry had a bad sense that they were not alone and he said, "Clear the house of bugs and we can talk."

Snape drew his wand and held it out toward the center of the room while turning in a circle around it. Harry had thought that the Snape he had shared quarters with the last three days was a slightly different man than this one, but what happened next disproved that assumption. Snape, with a slashing motion, cast a spell that forced any Animagus on the area to reveal themselves and falling with the floor lamp in a great crash was Rita Skeeter. Snape aimed his wand at her while she stood and brushed off her skirt and primped her curls. His gaze was hard and unyielding, looking for all the world capable of anything.

"Don't you dare point that at me," she commanded, trying to swap her quill for her wand in her beaded handbag.

"Get out of this house," Snape ordered. "You are not welcome here; you are trespassing."

"The wizarding public has a right to know," she stated, wagging her wand at him like one might a finger.

"The public has no such right as far as I am concerned. And that is just an excuse for what only concerns your ego. Get out or I will bind you with a mummy hex and hang you from the ceiling of the Ministry of Magic."

"You wouldn't dare," Skeeter countered, voice nasty.

"I'll have the Weasley twins provide passersby with paint-filled balloons suitable for throwing at you; I expect they will have no shortage of takers."

With a snarl, Skeeter Disapparated. Candide exhaled and said, "Oh she's really going to love us now."

Snape shot her a disappointed glance but moved to Harry and crouched before him, hands on his arms. "Are you all right?" he asked, sound like he had a long list of questions to follow. When Harry nodded, Snape asked, "What happened? Where did you go?"

"It was a terrible place," Harry said, thinking first of the menagerie. "I . . . with the poison, in the panic, I forgot you were no longer in the dungeon. I got confused and tried to reach you there. So, as a result, I ended up there."

"I thought . . . Latvia?" Candide interrupted, while taking a seat beside Harry.

"Harry needed a plausible story," Snape explained.

"Thanks for that," Harry said.

Candide clasped her hands together. "I'm sorry I called the Ministry in."

Snape held up his hand. "You thought it was the right thing to do. Now you know better." Returning his attention to Harry, he said, "Go on."

When Harry said, "Voldemort was headmaster," Snape's head fell forward. Harry went on, hopeful that he would not be in trouble. "I felt I should stay and take care of things. That Plane's Harry died in his first year trying to reach the Philosopher's Stone."

"And did you take care of things?" Snape asked.

Harry, mind full of the duel and the blood, replied, "Yes." After a pause to push the fresh memories down in the hopes of making them older faster, he added, "I'm glad to be home. It's Saturday, right?"

"Yes, you have been missing for days. We were most concerned about you." Snape touched the side of his head lightly and stood. "I expect your friends to come swarming in shortly. Are you up for it?"

Harry smiled. "Yes, very much so. Tell me more about this Aldaris and his castle, will you, before they arrive."

Snape smiled back, settled on the couch, and began speaking very quickly, holding up a hand when Candide tried to ask a question. "I'll explain it all later," he assured her.

She crossed her arms. "That ought to be good," she whispered.

Harry's friends began arriving within minutes as expected. Harry did not realize how badly he needed their companionship until he repeated his modified story and was roundly sympathized with by all. He wished he could tell Hermione the truth. Perhaps he would later. She was one of the few who knew already that he could Apparate inside of Hogwarts and she would keep any secret. Strange to imagine, but he found himself more willing to tell her than Tonks, who had just returned.

She gave Harry a hug. "Next time send an owl, a bat, anything!" she said while patting his back.

"I couldn't," Harry said. "Believe me . . . I wanted to."

Elizabeth arrived carrying a cake that said Welcome Home Harry in pink icing. Ron reached for the first piece, saying, "That was fast."

"I found a recipe in my mum's old magical cookbook."

Ron, mouth full, asked, "So it isn't real food?"

Elizabeth laughed while Harry worried about her doing magic at home where her father might spot it. "I just used a Foaming Heat Charm to cook it up in two minutes after the batter was mixed."

Hermione held her hand over her full mouth and asked, "Can you show me that spell?"

Elizabeth smiled painfully. "I'd love to show you a spell. You're the kind of witch who knows every spell. I'd be thrilled."

Hermione glanced at the clock and shoveled the next bite into her mouth faster. "It may have to be another time. I have to get back. And I'm sure Harry could use a rest more than a huge, late-night party."

She made her goodbyes and this triggered most everyone to leave. Eventually, only Tonks remained. Harry sat across from her in the dwindling candlelight, expecting Snape to check in any moment as he had throughout the evening.

Things clearly needed to be said, but her gaze skittered away whenever it met his. She said, "I was really worried about you. I couldn't understand why you left."

"I didn't leave-"

"I know that."

"Did you find anything out . . . about the poison?" Harry asked.

Tonks shook her head. "Everything in the tea room had long since been cleaned up."

Harry sighed and tweaked his fingers to turn the empty butterbeer bottle sitting before him. "Someone wants to kill me."

"Someone inside the Ministry," Tonks added. After a spell, Tonks whispered, "Can you come to my place tonight?"

"I shouldn't go missing, and . . ." Harry glanced into the hall, which was quiet. "I could ask, I suppose. Tomorrow would be better."

"I'll come here."

Harry imagined Snape checking on him. "Maybe not a good idea," he said, chaffing a bit at feeling over-protected because of this cramp on his sex life, but it quickly was overwhelmed by the basic notion of home.

Tonks tossed her tall pink hair. "I should go too. The office wanted a report on how you were doing and I've been here forever."

"Thanks for staying as long as you did," Harry said on automatic, standing with her.

She gave him a deep kiss that said more than any conversation could manage.

Harry strolled through the hall and the dim but warm light of the chandelier. The peace of the house both soothed him as well as put him on alert to defend it. Here's a Riddle for you, Tom . . . echoed through his skull. At the time he had only been trying for mockery of his enemy, but now the assertion mocked him back.

Snape and Candide were sitting in the drawing room. Candide's gaze held wonderment, presumably as a result of Snape's explanation of what had happened. Harry hoped it went away soon.

"Friends all departed?" Snape asked. "I'm curious about exactly what transpired at this other Hogwarts. If you would indulge me?" For a polite question it came out rather commanding.

Harry glanced at Candide. She put her things together quickly and said, "I'll leave you two alone."

"Thanks," Harry said. She hurried out with one quick smile back at Snape. The door clicked closed. Harry took the chair she had been in. The seat was still warm.

Snape pushed his own parchments aside, grasped the edge of the desk, and sat back, but it felt a false show of letting his guard down. "Did you kill Voldemort outright?"

Harry nodded and then equivocated by tilting it side to side. "I fed him to the demons."


"They always seem to be hungry."

"Or there are many, many of them and only the hungry ones bother to show up." Snape stated this dryly, factually.

A pause stretched out too long with Harry trying to stay out of memory, especially the memory of the menagerie, which had the tightest hold on him for some reason.

Snape finally said, "I worry that you are paying an unseen cost for utilizing these dark creatures to do your bidding."

"I didn't have any choice. I had already used Salazar's spell. It didn't take Voldemort down, just all his followers. Well, except your counterpart, who wasn't a threat to the castle." Harry pushed his fringe back out of his eyes. "He was stronger than me, Voldemort was. I couldn't take him down by myself. The wands saved me again. Kept him distracted until I could call in reinforcements. The Raksashas certainly took him by surprise."

Snape had him under intense scrutiny as he said, "I imagine it took everyone by surprise."

Harry nodded, thinking of the other Snape's fear of him. Harry examined his new wand, wondering that it didn't show any damage from battling. It looked exactly the same as before. He replayed the spells in his mind, wondering what he could have done differently. "I need to get stronger. I should have been able to beat him."

Snape merely stared at him, apparently unable to generate a response. An owl arrived, distracting them both. Snape opened the letter, which prominently displayed the Ministry seal on the flap. A minute later, he closed it, stuffed it back away and said, "It is from Arthur Weasley."

"Addressed to you?" Harry blurted, finding that odd.

"The Ministry is putting you under twenty-four-hour guard."

Harry laughed in a short burst, still deep in reliving the battle with Voldemort. "They think I need guarding? And besides, it's someone inside the Ministry; how do they know they won't just assign my attacker as my guard?"

Snape waved the letter. "They are certifying select individuals, by means of Veritaserum, and only they will be your guards."

"They can't spare anyone," Harry asserted. "And I don't need protection. I look forward to this person trying again, so I can catch them at it."

Sternly, Snape said, "I am not objecting to Mr. Weasley's plan, quite the opposite."

"Well, of course, it'll make it right impossible for me to spend any time alone with Tonks. I'm sure you'd appreciate that." Harry immediately wished he had not said that, but his frustration over being unable to arrange to stay with her that night boiled over without his control.

Snape's features sharpened with a predatorial edge. "I do not expect coercion to repair that proclivity of yours, so I would not attempt it. I would much prefer you get wise on your own." He stepped around the desk with a swift movement, trailing his robes. His voice lowered as he said, "For your edification, she is at the top of the list of guards to be certified, which if I am not mistaken will mean you will frequently spend nights with her for the foreseeable future."

"Oh," Harry uttered quietly.

Snape snapped the envelope with a flick of his wrist and tossed it on the desk, clearly disgusted. "For the weekend it will be myself guarding you. You are not to leave this house alone, do you understand?"

Harry felt about four years younger at that moment. But given how fiercely Snape had hung onto him when he had reappeared, Harry did not complain or argue. This stern admonishment was just another expression of the same thing, he knew in his gut. "Yes, sir," he said.

Snape crossed his arms and leaned back against the front of his desk. Still business-like he asked, "Do you have control over what happened? Or can we expect further disappearances?"

"I have control," Harry insisted. "I know exactly what happened, this time. I better understand last time too, now that I know it was real."

"Good," Snape said.

After a space, Harry added, "Sorry." But he wasn't any clearer on what he was apologizing for than Snape, given his guardian's raised brow. Maybe, as usually, he felt he should make up for the trouble he caused.

Snape relented; it was clear by the way he said, "Do not apologize."

After an awkward pause, Harry said, "I should get to sleep. I had a long day of killing Voldemort and I'm kind of tired." Harry stood when there was no objection to this. "Thanks for kicking Skeeter out. It was fun to watch."

"My pleasure."

- 888 -

Hermione sorted through the parchments spread out before her as she stood at the front table facing the First-Year Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws. She had expected that by three weeks into the term she would be less nervous, but she had not yet completely shaken a base unease. The students who did well, she felt were not really her doing; the students who were already falling behind, seemed unreachable; and the two who she sometimes suspected may be Squibs, or close to it, she was not certain what to do with. This included the Mer-boy, Namortuk, who sat even now, eagerly in the front row, his slowly shifting magical collar of lake water reflecting the room around him.

It was not that Hermione did not think the boy had any magic, more that his magic was too different to get anything out of her class and perhaps out of the school. She did not hold this against him; it would be as if Hermione herself had been sent to a school only for Divination. She could read the textbooks but never really produce any meaningful output, except by random chance. But the boy continued to be intrepidly pleased with his surroundings and the assignments, so despite her gut instinct that something drastically needed to be fixed, academically, she forced herself to just let the situation be, but it still needled her.

She asked the reluctant children arrayed before her questions about the assigned reading—a short and easy chapter that despite being so, had gone unread by a handful. Finally, names were coming to her easily. Last names, though. She found herself losing track of students' first names and sometimes when speaking to a student about another student, was not always certain as a result who was being discussed. As with most days, by the time she set them to trying out new spells and had circled the room offering advice and encouragement, the class period was nearly over. She considered doubling the reading, in the hopes of making the slackers take it seriously, but instead threatened them with a short quiz. Groans emanated from the room, a counterpoint to the vibrating squeaks of the desks shifting as the children rose to their feet.

It was lunchtime, but as usual Hermione had too much to finish to contemplate the luxury of the Great Hall's food and instead hunched over the Third-Year textbook entitled Witchy & Warlocky Wand Waving and jotted down a few notes for questions and as a sort of desperation outline for that day's topic.

A knock on the door interrupted this and for a moment, Hermione feared she was late for class even though only forty-five minutes had passed. Relieved by what the face of the clock showed, she called out that the person could enter.

In stepped McGonagall, smiling graciously. She took a position beside the guest chairs and clasped her hands before her. "I could not help but notice that you were missing from the mid-day meal once again. This is a first for a Monday."

Hermione replied, "I was helping look for Harry part of the weekend, so I didn't catch up like I usually do."

"Ah, of course," McGonagall said gently. "The students wish to start a Harry Hunt Club, in fact. When I informed them that only those of age could join, given the requirement to leave school grounds, they were most crestfallen."

Hermione smiled since she was supposed to find this story amusing, but it was difficult to do so given how much trouble Harry still managed to get into.

McGonagall said kindly, "The teaching will get easier. It is hardest for those who care the most about getting every last thing perfect, but for the first year it is impossible to do that, and you risk burning out while trying."

Hermione gazed unseeing at her notes. "I wouldn't know where to . . . cut corners to manage better. There are such a terribly large number of sections. For the First through Fifth Years there are two each twice a week, sometimes doubled in length, and then two more Advanced Charms for Sixth and Seventh. I don't know how to fit it all in without a Time-Turner."

"When you are practiced at it and are not doing prep each time, it is far easier."

Another knock sounded. Hermione exhaled, blowing her hair around her eyes. "That must be my weekly review meeting," she said, working very hard not to sound completely overstressed. She put away her notes in a folder neatly labelled for the next class while McGonagall opened the door to let Professor Snape in.

"Ah, Severus, I wanted to speak with you. Sprout again caught Orfius and Sirco again attempting to sneak into the off-limits greenhouse. They have fallen afoul of a skin-eating slime mold and have been sent to St. Mungo's. If you would be so good as to pay a visit to their parents with a longer explanation than I could manage by Floo owl, I would appreciate it."

Snape nodded and said he would do so immediately after his next class. Hermione was glad she was not yet at a level to be assigned such tasks. She wondered at McGonagall handing it off to her deputy, but Snape did not show any sign of complaint, in fact he behaved surprisingly obedient, something she had noticed before, that is, when he did not disagree forcefully with an expressed idea. She puzzled that while the two of them discussed the troublesome students using their own administrative shorthand. And she wondered if Snape had a need to be loyal to someone and so had transfered his old loyalty to Dumbledore wholesale onto McGonagall.

McGonagall parted and Snape took one of the visitor's chairs, efficiently moving on to her weekly review without any small talk.

"How is Harry?" Hermione asked before he could start.

From his pocket, Snape removed his rolled parchment of notes from previous meetings and replied, "You saw him on Saturday, did you not?"

"Yes, but . . ." She hesitated, but with renewed confidence, said, "I had the distinct sense that a cover story had been fabricated so I wanted to know that Harry really was all right."

Snape read over the unrolled the parchment before him, stalling it seemed. "Harry is fine," Snape stated.

Hermione did not like being kept away from the truth. "What are you hiding?" When no answer was forthcoming, she said, "I can ask Harry. I know he can Apparate inside the school, which means he should've been able to reach you. That part was a lie; I know for certain."

Snape rubbed his fingertips together. "Then you understand the need to protect him."

"Yes. I do." She stopped, having trouble with seriously contemplating something so terrible. "That's why they were going to give Sirius Black a Dementor's kiss, wasn't it? Because they couldn't keep him in prison. Azkaban, when it's completed, wouldn't hold Harry either. If he ever got into enough trouble with the Ministry . . ." She had to stop.

"They could hold Harry, but, like the few vampires they have incarcerated, quite a few precautions are necessary and the risk of escape is high if any of the extra security fails. So yes, under an exceptionally bad alignment of circumstances I fear the worst."

Hermione held off on pointing out that he was one of those arguing forcefully for giving Sirius exactly that treatment. Perhaps that was precisely why he was being so very paranoid this time.

Snape said, "Suffice to say, the story told to the Ministry and the press was essentially true. Beyond Harry returning safely and avoiding future such mishaps, I have less care for what actually transpired." He referred to his parchment, and moved to their meeting topic. "How did this last week go?"

Hermione pulled her thoughts from Harry to Charms in all its seven levels of learning. "I thought it would go better than it did," she confessed. "I don't know what to do with the very slow students and the slackers."

"You cannot force every last one of them to learn. If you have not accepted that yet, I suggest you work harder on doing so."

"Yes, but if they aren't doing well in Charms then they must be struggling mightily in Transfiguration."

"That is not your problem."

"It is, because Charms is the easy one. It's the one everyone can do first because it is all impermanent."

"Hexs are what everyone gets first," Snape countered. "How you failed to notice that the very first day in the corridors . . ."

Hermione lightly rolled her eyes. "I'm also reluctant to assign points except as deductions."

"That is solely your prerogative."

"It just feels so . . . like such uneven treatment to reward someone for doing what they were supposed to do anyhow or just rewarding the ones who are trying to cozy up to me."

Bordering on derisive, Snape asked, "Did you not like receiving points as a student?"

"Well . . ." Hermione said. "Well, yes, of course." She stared out at the round stone tower outside the window. "It just all feels so different from this side."

"You are worrying over it too much." He let that lie for a moment and then said, "I need to sit in on one of your classes in the next week, but there are not a terribly large number of open times in my schedule that are actual class times for you. I may just have Remus take over and come some afternoon when it is convenient. Is there anything else we need to discuss?"

"Harry is really all right?"

Snape stood. "Harry is fine," he repeated, but he sounded far away as he said it.

Author's Note:

Special thanks go out to those who nominated Resonance for a Dobby!

Yes, quick turnaround. Please, don't get used to it: I'll need two weeks for the next.

I haven't done this is a long, long time, but I feel compelled--due to the sheer volume of comments that all say the same thing--to make a comment/clarification/offer some thoughts. First off, let me say that I love that you are all taking the story seriously and you are all sharp enough that I can't keep up with you, which means I don't have to worry about getting too far ahead. Very cool. Thanks for staying along for the ride and caring how it turns out. But to the meat of it: Harry's response to Snape that he is the last horcrux. Yes, that dimension's Harry is dead, which means that horcrux is gone too. (I didn't adjust these chapters for DH, so the total is off, but no one's mentioned that, and it doesn't really matter.) Harry is an endearingly straightforward guy. When asked where the seventh horcrux is, Harry doesn't think about this in a complicated way. He answers honestly, and also as a kind of confession, that he is the last one. Harry confesses because being the last horcrux (in his Plane, at least) still gnaws at him and he wants this Snape to understand what's going on. And, it's kind of a power move as well to tell Snape that. At the moment Snape asked the question, Harry's answer was essentially true. Now, were Harry to stay in this Plane, would he really qualify as an undestroyed horcrux? Interesting question. I lean toward a "probably" because Harry, since his arrival in this other place has been using that connection to detect this Voldemort's presence, so he clearly has a connection to this Voldemort (and for the record to the book 6 "canon" Voldemort too from the last fall into another Plane). At any rate. Those are my thoughts on this. Fascinating that so many of you had identical reactions to the scene.

Next: Chapter 13

"Shall we give it a try?" he asked her in a whisper, holding Kali up to stare closely into her beady eyes. He carried her to the open window and said, "No pigeons."

With her wings pumping in the evening light, his pet resembled a violet puffball sailing over the garden wall. Sitting on his trunk, Harry closed his eyes and tried to see out of his pet's instead.

Chapter 13: Guard Duty
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Chapter 13 — Guard Duty

Harry had Aaron trailing him as guard to an above-ground shop to get a pasty for lunch. The day was warm and breezy and the Muggle streets loud with cars and buses.

"Who's your guard tonight?" Aaron asked.

"Tonks is supposed to be, but they don't always say. They just gave me a list of passcodes to verify from whoever shows up next." He handed over a few Muggle coins and accepted the wrapped food, which immediately soaked grease and heat through the crinkly paper.

"Well, Tonks wouldn't be a bad deal."

Harry smiled crookedly. "No, she wouldn't."

They returned to the atrium and walked to a bench overlooking the fountain to eat. Hungrier than normal, Harry had already taken a few bites and Aaron, when he noticed, asked, "Not going to use the poison-revealing drops first?"

Harry carefully waved his lunch and said, "I just bought this from a Muggle shop where no one knows who I am. That's why I went there. The drops taste funny."

"Your choice, I suppose." Aaron groaned as he sat down and stretched his feet out before him. "We had a devil of a time looking for you."

"Sorry about that. If I disappear like that again, don't bother trying to find me. If I can't get back, I'm too far away to be found."

"Yeah, Latvia. It was not high on the list of places to search." With false thoughtfulness, he added, "I don't think it was on the list at all. So, what's it feel like to Apparate that far?"

"It hurts," Harry said. "Don't try it."

"What are you doing about this wizard, Aldaris?"

Harry tilted his pasty so the filling wouldn't ooze out. "Adding him to my Christmas list. I owe him one."

Aaron laughed.

During afternoon drills while facing his trainer for a demonstration, Harry asked how he could increase his spell power.

Rodgers scoffed. The others in the room turned their attention to them. "You aren't feeling lacking are you, Potter?" Rodgers teased.

"Well, sometimes," Harry said.

"Raw power is slow to increase. You're born with a certain amount and if you vigorously make use of it, some people anyhow, are lucky enough to get a little more of it."

Harry tapped his wand on his hand, impatient with that answer. "So, you're saying that there's nothing I can do."

"I didn't say that," Rodgers came back. "Step back and get ready with a Titan block." Rodgers also stepped back. "Part of what you think of as power is just focussed energy. The difference between this . . ." Here he sent Harry a Cutting Curse, but its beam wavered in the air, wide and ineffective. ". . . and this. Be ready for it." He repeated the spell, but the spell trail was almost invisibly thin. Harry's block sizzled and he was forced to jump out of the way and let the spell burn itself out on the wall behind him.

Harry stared at his trainer from where he kneeled in the corner. "Good thing you're on our side, sir," he said as he got to his feet. He tried not to feel frustrated with the thought that this was the second person in mere days who could take him down on raw power.

"Can you show us how to focus spells better?" Harry asked.

"We've already done exercises to improve that. But it doesn't help with all spells. I used the best example to demonstrate. Frankly, finesse is often more valuable and that you gain through repetition." With an amused tilt of the head he considered Harry before saying, "You don't look happy with my answer."

Harry, feeling unusually desperate about this, explained, "Well, what if we do meet a . . . bad wizard who can overpower us?"

"Outsmart them," Rodgers answered a tad mockingly. "Or bring a partner and corner them if you can't manage that. All kinds of options. Got someone in mind that we don't know about, Potter?"

"No," Harry answered honestly.

Rodgers dropped his suspicion and said, "We'll work on fine-tuning some powerful spells during drills. Everyone pick a partner."

Blackpool followed Harry home that evening and read Witch Weekly while Harry studied. She traded with Tonks at 11:00.

"Puffball Mushrooms," Tonks proclaimed when she arrived in the Floo.

"That right?" Blackpool asked Harry, wand unwavering.

Harry resisted laughing at her care. "Yes."

"I'll leave you to it then."

"Thanks," Harry said before she departed.

Candide, with a broad yawn, declared it time to go to sleep and Harry had to agree. Upstairs on the balcony, she bade them goodnight with a knowing smile, making Harry grateful Snape was away at school.

Harry slept with Tonks half overlapping him and was glad for the reassuringly pleasant feel of her when he awoke with a start from a dream involving hoards of demons rampaging out of control.


"Yeah, just a dream," he mumbled, because the room was quiet and it was clearly not happening here and may not be happening anywhere.

In a fit of what felt like rare good fortune, Tonks was assigned most all night guard duty for the rest of the week, except for when she had the regular night shift at the Ministry. During those times, Harry had a different guard in the form of a small, stout wrinkly-faced woman from Control of Magical Creatures. Mr. Weasley had pulled Harry aside and informed him that the woman, Hornisham, was overdue for retirement and due to her fearless handling of calls, her department worried she may not survive to retirement, so they were happy to give her something else to do. Harry believed they might feel differently if they knew what kind of creatures Harry could conjure while he slept.

The first night with her sitting beside the cold hearth, knitting metal dragon-proof cord into a tunic, Harry did not sleep so well. But the second time, other than wishing for Tonks instead, he slept immediately, lulled off by the faint grinding and clicking sounds and the thought that, if necessary, the witch could don the tunic which might actually hold up to demon teeth. Harry's dreams remained murky, muddy and algae colored, like the lake water under Hogwarts castle. He always awoke feeling slightly less than well rested.

Friday, before Harry departed for field shadowing, Candide shooed Hornisham off, insisting she needed to talk to Harry alone. Candide had a letter in her hand, but she rolled it tightly into a tube and held it at her side when she noticed Harry eying it.

"How are you doing, Harry?" she asked bluntly.


"Training went all right this week?"

Harry stared at her, wondering at the redundancy; they had engaged in similar small talk all week.

"Fine. Still easier because of our newest apprentice, but Rodgers promises that the repetition won't last. Why the interview?" he returned bluntly.

"Severus wants to know if he should come home this weekend."

"He doesn't need to for me. If you want him home . . ."

She frowned. "Work is only getting busier. I'll be at the office at least some Saturday and Sunday, so he shouldn't bother on my account, I won't be here . . ."

"He shouldn't bother on mine, either," Harry said.

Candide moved her letter-laden hand, but did not need to reference it directly. "How are you sleeping?"

Harry did not want to reply, but he had to answer and he could not find the will to lie. "A few odd dreams but I'm sleeping all right."

Again, point-blank: "Voldemort? Is Voldemort in your dreams?"


This time she did raise the letter. While reading it, she said, "You need to go or you're going to be late."

Harry collected his guard from the hall where she was making faces at herself in the wood-framed mirror. Harry had to suppress a much-needed smile at the scene of this stout, middle-aged women arranging her face into various scary expressions.

"Ready to go?" the witch queried, unfazed at being interrupted.

"Yeah. Thanks for giving us a few minutes."

"No worries. Bugger for you losin' your privacy like this."

Harry was surprised by her understanding. "Well, you lose your nights," he said.

She waved one pudgy hand that was missing the ends of two fingers. "'Tis nothin'. It's jus' me cats at home anyhow."

Thinking of Mrs. Figg, Harry tried to make conversation, "How many cats do you have?"

The answer came after they arrived in the Atrium. "Twenty four . . . no . . . twenty . . ." She made a different kind of face and stared at the ceiling while pondering an answer.

"That's all right; I get the idea," Harry said quickly.

Up in the office, Harry waited for Shacklebolt to finish his report from his last assignment. He was speaking unusually fast to his quill, making it skip words and have to jump around filling in. Eventually, the nib broke and it fluttered to the floor.

"Ack," Shacklebolt uttered and pulled out a regular quill to finish by hand. Even writing fast, his handwriting was neater than the Autoquill's, which said a lot. To Harry, he said, "We have a call we should hit within the hour; that's why I'm hurrying."

Harry Side-Alonged to Mumbles-under-Tyne and followed Shacklebolt's lead in stashing his wand away in his sleeve before stepping out onto the pavement from the abandoned newspaper printers where they had arrived. Harry thought it a less-than-wise place to arrive given the looming old equipment filling the place and the hiding places it provided, but he assumed Shacklebolt was well aware of that, so he remained silent. Harry marked the doorway into the building in his memory. A sign with faded scroll letters outlined in still-bright gold paint read Mumbles Echo.

Harry remained mum as they walked with purpose, finally stepping down a narrow crooked alley that was much darker than it should have been in the noon-time sun. The entrance was between Mandragon's Haberdashery with unpromisingly faded wares in the window and a nail salon with so much neon tubing framing it one could not see inside. The salon might have had a name, but if it did, it was part of the Chinese lettering sharing space with the English.

Shacklebolt tapped with his wand on the keystone block of an archway spanning the alley twenty feet in. Beyond it a row of five shops sparkled into view. They entered the first shop. Inside, stacks of hats, large atop small, lined shelves and racks ranging from staid, closest to the door, to flashing Quidditch-themed ones lighting the far corner.

"Oy, what can I do you for?" a portly man with short mussed hair asked, making it seem the business of hats was a serious one with him. His eyes came around to Harry, standing off Shacklebolt's shoulder, and his attitude grew wary.

"We're from the Auror's office," Shacklebolt explained. "We had a report of some trouble . . . ?"

The man laughed lightly, his lips glistening with saliva. "My sister, she over-reacted. It's nothing. Ministry didna have ta send Aurors of all things," he complained, glancing at Harry and away again. "No one's been doing any dark magic around here abouts."

Shacklebolt stated helpfully, "You aren't the only ones having problems."

The shopkeeper laughed nervously. "So we are in good company for this thing we are not involved with?"

"Yes," Shacklebolt replied after a beat.

Harry watched the various signs the man gave off, the wet lips, the nervous movements of his feet that he was probably unaware of. "We don't need you here. Go take care of something important."

"This IS important," Shacklebolt said. "If it gets out of control, everyone suffers."

Harry Legilimized the man the next time his eyes grazed Harry's. All he caught was a flash of an argument with a woman.

"Is your sister here?" Shacklebolt asked eerily narrating the vision.

"She is. She's in back listening to her favorite on the wireless. I'm sure she'd rather not talk to you."

Harry considered piping in, but waited to see what Shacklebolt would do. The Auror said, "I'd rather hear that from her."

The man grumbled but fetched his sister, who gave off more signs of nerves than the brother, including laughing more. She gave Harry more chances to see her thoughts because she seemed fascinated with him standing there and kept staring. Harry had visions of nighttime visitors full of threats. No faces, just odd grey cloth masks over wrinkled black veils so even the eye holes gave nothing away. Shacklebolt eventually gave up getting her to admit there was a problem. Perhaps he even felt bad for making her so agitated.

As they departed, Shacklebolt insisted to the shopkeepers that he, or someone else, would return if called.

They then went to each of the other shops on the alley, interviewing clerks and owners alike; Shacklebolt was adamant about talking to everyone who was available. No one was any more helpful. Only the young woman working in the beauty salon, whom Harry knew from Hogwarts, seemed to have no idea at all why they were there. The rest were all wary and dodgy with their answers.

Back in the printers, Harry waited while Shacklebolt paced.

"Is it safe to talk here, sir?" Harry asked. When Shacklebolt nodded, Harry went on, "Can I ask what this is about?"

"It would seem a shakedown is in progress on Mandragon Alley and I was hoping for a little more cooperation . . . from anyone. Question I have now is, are we dealing with just one gang or do we have a copy-cat already."

Harry said, "The ones that came here wore odd masks, with cat-eye slits over the eyes and . . ." He gestured on his own face. ". . . over the nose and mouth. With a netting underneath so you couldn't see any part of their features."

Shacklebolt stared at Harry. After a long pause, he said, "I guess given that Severus taught you, I should expect you'd be that good at Legilimency. I saw you giving a few of them a good eyeing. I wasn't sure if that was just intimidation . . . which didn't seem like your style."

"I didn't mean to intimidate anyone," Harry said. "That probably wouldn't help."

Shacklebolt waved his hand, raising his pale palm to face Harry. "In fact, one tactic is to come across far tougher than the people they fear. Not the nicest thing to do, but it can work."

Shacklebolt straightened his cloak. Harry thought his chance for answers grew short. "Who are these people?"

"Don't know. Fudge believes they are foreigners, from Italy or Portugal where the government is either not effective at shutting them down or are worse yet, part of the problem."

"What do you think?" Harry asked.

"In an insular place like this, where the shopkeepers are English." He shook his head. "I think they'd cooperate with us if the perpetrators were foreign. Must be locals involved. The ideas and methods may be imported, but I bet the manpower isn't. Reggie took the last call of this nature and I thought maybe his glowing personality was part of the reason we didn't get any help."

Harry grinned.

Shacklebolt said, "Trouble is, if they're smart, their threats are far greater than the fee they are asking for in return for protection. But that will change, and then we might get some help, but someone will get hurt first, I'm afraid. Let's get back; there's probably ten other things we could be doing for someone willing to have help."

They spent the remainder of the shift trying to track down someone dealing in illicit cursed devices. This meant they snuck around sometimes very secure warehouses and interviewed people, mostly Muggles, which was time-consuming and involved making up lots of unlikely stories.

Harry's feet complained when he finally had a chance to get off them back in the office at 7:00 in the evening. Rodgers sauntered in and said, "So, how'd it go?" with an annoyingly knowing lilt.

"Same as you," Shacklebolt conceded. "Harry gets two gold stars for today. He's a better partner than you . . . and on top of that he complains less."

Rodgers crossed his arms. "Well, if you prefer a partner with a contract out on him . . ." He looked Harry over. "Waiting for your guard?"

Harry nodded. "I don't really need one," he said, not terribly hopeful that he would get free of the requirement, but feeling better to say that.

Tonks came in. "Ready?" she asked. "I'll take you home and wait for your other guard, unless Severus is there."


"Or unless you want to go to dinner at my parents."

Harry wondered at her saying that in front of not only Shacklebolt, but Harry's even stricter trainer. "I don't mind that."

"You're certain?" she asked doubtfully, straightening her robes which were not quite dress robes, but they glittered along the collar, matching her metallic silver hair. "No house elf at their place."

Harry could not imagine anyone not wanting to show off their parents. He nodded.

"And Candide's not expecting you?"

"She's working late."

Tonks tossed her head. "Well, come on, then."

The other two watched them leave. Harry kept his head down until he was well out the door. In the lift, Harry asked, "Why would you think I wouldn't want to go to your parents for dinner?"

Tonks puzzled the question, looked on the verge of explaining, but then shrugged.

They arrived in the Floo at the Tonks' house. Harry conked his head getting out when he caught sight of Andromeda. Rubbing the crown of his head, Harry peered at her with eyes squinted in pain. Tonks gave her mother a quick hug.

"I brought Harry along, I hope that's all right."

"Of course, dear," Andromeda said playfully. She held out her hand to Harry. "Nice to finally meet you, Harry. It's all right to call you 'Harry', right?"

Harry nodded and flinched at the stab this sent behind his right eye. At Andromeda's doubtful watching of him nursing his head, Harry said, "I thought you were your sister for just a moment."

Andromeda propped her hands on her hips accusingly. "Would you like some ice for that?"

"Yes, thank you."

To Tonks, as an aside, she asked, "Not as clumsy as you, I hope." The two of them went off. Harry looked around the ordinary room, at the fancy oil-lamps on wrought iron stands and the forest-colored furniture.

A sandy-haired man with a rotund gut came in the door, dragging muddy robe edges across the pale green carpet. Harry's presence distracted him from considering what to do about that. "Er, hello there. I don't think we've met," the man said.

Harry stepped up to him, hand out. "You must be Tonks' father . . . I mean, uh, Ted Tonks right?"

"'Dora's father, yes," Mr. Tonks said energetically, recognition brightening his eyes. "Very nice to meet you." His hands were dusty with earth as well, it turned out.

"Dora? Oh, yeah," Harry said.

"What can we do for you . . ." Mr. Tonks started to ask.

"Ted, the floor, honestly," Andromeda interrupted, returning. She handed Harry a hot water bottle full of ice and pulled out her wand to clean the carpet. "Perhaps you should change for dinner." She crossed her arms, wand bouncing. "Unless you want to stand there for the full treatment."

"No, I'll just go and change," he said. The trail he left as he departed was quickly Scourgified away.

Andromeda gave a long suffering sigh. "I'll just see to dinner."

Tonks sidled over to Harry, who was finding relief in the ice after the initial discomfort of it. "My dad doesn't know we're dating," she said in a low voice.

Harry lifted the ice out of his view. "You waited till now to the tell me?" He considered that as the ice crackled, heated by his head. "Same complaint as Severus?"

"No," she said, turning away.

"Er . . ." Harry decided that could lie for now. "What about your mum?"

"She likes you a lot," Tonks said, brushing her hand over the back of the nearby linen-draped couch.

Harry, voice low as well, said, "I didn't get the sense your dad disliked me."

Tonks started. "Oh, no, it's not that . . ." But Mr. Tonks returned, robes changed, hair slicked back.

"So, Harry, very nice to meet you close up. Certainly have seen you at a distance a few times and in the papers far more times than that. Come over and sit down." He gestured at the couch which he himself settled onto with a sigh of relief, belly covering part of his lap. He gave Harry a smile and reached for a box on the small table beside him. "Honeydukes?" he offered.

Harry accepted a chocolate covered wafer in the shape of a cauldron with a little loop of licorice for a handle.

Mr. Tonks went on, "Play any Quidditch these days? You're finished at Hogwarts right . . . or not?"

Harry had trouble swallowing.

"Oh, yes, of course you are," Mr. Tonks went on, slapping his leg. "'Dora's told us you're apprenticing in her department." Whimsically, he said, "They start you kids so young these days. It's a wonder . . . Did you finish school, or well no, you must have left early, right?"

Dinner broke the flow of conversation but it resumed on the same course when everyone settled in behind their plates of ravioli.

Right after Mr. Tonks chastised his wife for offering Harry mead "at his age," Harry finally said, "I've turned nineteen now . . . as of July."

Tonks was shading her eyes with her hand while eating. Across from her Andromeda was enjoying the confusion and did not look likely to help.

Harry went on, "I finished school years ago, well, over a year ago. Completed a pile of N.E.W.T.s and everything." Feeling defensive and hearing it in his voice, Harry took a deep breath and stopped talking.

"Really?" Mr. Tonks asked in confusion. "Hard to imagine you as anything but little Harry Potter." He held his hand out at seated shoulder height. Maybe taller than a house-elf, but not by much.

Harry shut his mouth, which was hanging open. "I've finished a whole year of the Auror Apprenticeship," he said after regrouping, working hard on a factual voice. Maintaining the conversation had resulted in his not eating much. He thought he had managed to get his point across, but Mr. Tonks said, "If you don't like that, you can skip ahead to dessert. We have chocolate ice cream."

Harry almost said yes, but his pride would not let him. "This is fine," he said, completely at a loss.

Back in Shrewsthorpe where Tonks waited for Harry's guard to report, Tonks said, "Sorry about that."

"Not your fault," Harry said. But then shook his head and held his hand out. "Little Harry Potter? Hello?"

Tonks laughed but it was mostly embarrassment.

Harry said, "No wonder you didn't want to go to dinner with your parents."

"See, I tried to explain to him when I told my mum, but he completely misunderstood when I said I wanted to spend more time with you off-duty. He thought . . . I don't know . . . that I was doing what the Order always did, you know, keeping a close eye on you now that Dumbledore was gone. Heck, then he so misunderstood, I feared he would start to understand. Do you understand?"

Harry laughed. "Yes, actually."

She shrugged, blush visible in the dim main hall light where only a few candles in the chandelier were lit. "You know, for a long time you were Little Harry Potter, this . . . child . . . with far too big of things to do. He can't get beyond that."

Harry admitted, "I sometimes have trouble looking at the old photographs from first and second year at Hogwarts. I worry about the lightning-scarred kid in the picture. I can't help it. So I sort of understand what your dad is thinking. It's getting harder to imagine those days, in fact. I know so much magic now . . . I wonder how the heck that kid is possibly going to survive without having a clue."

Tonks said, "You didn't get any mead at dinner . . . do you have any in the house? I could use another too."

Harry turned to go to the kitchen, but Tonks caught up to him. "I haven't cleared the house," Tonks said, arresting his progress. "Not to treat you like my dad was . . . but I have to treat you like my dad was for just two minutes while I check things out."

Harry stood in the center of the hall and watched her disappear down the stairs leading to the kitchen. She reappeared shortly after, saying, "Winky says it's all right." But she checked all the ground floor rooms anyhow. Harry continued to wait while she checked the first floor, finding strong comfort in basic duty, as he had since his return to his own world. Her attentive progress around the house represented something so utterly lacking in that other place that he found no will to be annoyed with it, even post-dinner with Mr. Tonks.

"Candide working late again?" Tonks asked after sticking her head in the bedroom.

"November is the end of the accounting year for most wizard businesses, so she's quite busy starting in September."

"I'm surprised Severus doesn't suggest she quit," Tonks said upon returning to stand beside Harry. Winky appeared with a tray and two tall ceramic cups of mead.

"I don't think she'd want to."

Cupping their drinks in both hands, they sat down and the house settled around them. "When's the baby expected?" Tonks asked between sips.

"Early March sometime. I forget the date."

"Severus ready to be a dad?" Like most people, she could not help grinning while asking this.

"He already is one," Harry pointed out.

"That's not the same." Tonks waved Harry off dismissively.

Harry felt a stab of annoyance and drank his mead with more purpose.

- 888 -

"Come on up here, Potter," Rodgers said the next Monday during training. While Harry obeyed, Rodgers announced, "Harry's comments about working on power made me realize I've grown too easy on you all."

Tridant made a noise halfway between a squeak and an erp.

Pretending not to hear, even though he grinned more, Rodgers went on, "So we are going to push you all a bit more every day and see if we can't squeeze a little more magic out of each of you over time."

When Harry took up a position across from him, wand out, Rodgers said to him, "All I heard about all weekend from Kingsley is how much he prefers partnering with you. Get ready with a Chrysanthemum . . ." He fired off a curse, which Harry blocked. "Got a little old, I'll admit." Then the same curse repeated with more behind it. Then again. Harry's wand began to vibrate when the curses hit his block.

"Shall I go back to making trouble during my shadowing?" Harry asked, trying to be cute.

Rodgers gave him a mocking grin and changed curses. Harry hit the wall.

"You all right?" Rodgers asked with an amused laugh as Harry righted himself.

Harry's head still hurt from striking it on the mantelpiece at the Tonks house, otherwise, he would not have any complaints. "Fine, sir."

"You need to put more focus in the front AND back of that block for a Gorgon Curse. Try again."

Harry did not complain as he sat down, even though his body did. He wanted to get better at handling someone with stronger magic than himself, and if getting beaten up a little every day like he used to was what it took, then so be it. Harry nursed his elbow, wishing for a little ice. Up at the front of the room Aaron managed four blocks in a row and then completely blew the same one on the next spell.

Rodgers said, "You have to concentrate, Wickem. You have it in you, you just don't always pull it out and use it."

Kerry Ann snickered. Rodgers directed his wand at her. "Don't laugh; you're next."

Tridant did well; he fared almost as well as Aaron, albeit on a limited set of attacks since he had not yet learned nearly as many attack-counter combinations as the rest of them.

"Getting better," Rodgers said when he finally released him. Tridant nearly lost his footing at the praise and had to put a hand on Vineet's desk.

Vineet was last and Rodgers went much easier on him for a few rounds. "Everyone else gives you a Counter workout every day, I think. Why don't you give me one. Everyone is having fun but me." He gestured with a come-hither of his hand that he was ready. "Hard as you want . . . you're like me, holding back all the time."

Vineet cast a Blasting Curse at him and Rodgers used a rubber shield that deflected it under him as he jumped over it awkwardly. He stood straight. "Holy Merlin. I guess I should worry less that your blocks aren't what they should be." He stretched his shoulders back. "Okay, something else this time. Mix it up a little."

Harry's week continued on in this rough vein, including getting called onto duty with Tonks late on Thursday night. They, and every on-duty Auror and available personnel from Reversal were called to the scene of what Harry at first thought was a building fire: Blue and yellow flames licked out of smashed windows. Powerful lights cast circular beams on the scene.

Harry slopped through the puddles surrounding the fire trucks, following behind Tonks. In their black robes, disguise spells were barely needed, but by the time they passed the second truck, Tonks appeared to be in a rubber coat, baggy trousers and bulky boots. Harry made similar but not nearly as convincing or easy changes to his clothes.

The fire personnel were sitting on the curb, comically interspersed with civilians, including a woman in a nightgown and nightcap, her little white dog asleep in her arms. Reversal had just finished going down the line, issuing Memory Charms to the lot of them.

Harry had at least ten questions begging to get answered. He kept silent and waited for instructions while Shacklebolt, Mr. Weasley, and other Ministry personnel talked. Shacklebolt said to Tonks, "Keep an eye on him," in reference to Harry. "Lot of confusion, anything could happen."

Tonks turned. "Come on, Harry."

Harry still felt a new seriousness to his duty, an impersonal seriousness that made it easy to say: "Should I go wait elsewhere? I don't want to be in the way."

She peered at him in the flashing, reflecting light, almost like that on a dance floor. "No, just stay close to me. Kingsley's just reminding me that guarding you is my priority right now."

They circled the building around to the far side and Tonks began laying down Muggle repelling barriers. Harry did not ask if he could help; if she wanted help, she would ask. He did keep an eye out through the dark trees and the dancing shadows beyond them on the surrounding buildings. Around the front, Reversal was canceling the spells that were causing the place to burn, brick and all. Clearly it was a magical fire, rather than the normal kind.

Beside him, Tonks said, "Get ready, as soon as the fire is just heat-based, they'll release the Befuddlement on the Muggle fire brigade and we'll have to get out of the way."

Harry again forced the questions down. He kept his wand up, eyes never resting anywhere for long. At Tonks' signal, they returned to the Ministry, their Apparition noise lost in the crack and pop of the fire.

Harry stood against the wall in the Auror's office. Reports were assembled, casual debriefings ensued. He took a seat at Rogan's empty desk and picked through the stack of Daily Prophets stashed on the overhead shelf. There wasn't much of interest to read about and after flipping through three issues, one after the other, it occurred to Harry that the sports pages had by far the best photographs. Harry watched Krum sailing around at an International Invitational match and read that article with more interest than the one about training gnomes to care for begonias that occupied the page before it. The next section on the stack had been folded in strange ways. Harry turned it over and found Fudge giving a press conference. Fudge's statements read like a bizarre litany of reverse Memory charms. Fudge claimed that the current Ministry was "acting too slowly to combat new trouble" and "falling back on old thinking despite it not working" and "not calling for help from our international partners in a time of need." Harry scoured the rest of that issue, but it was not made clear what exactly the "trouble" was purported to be. Harry had an idea what it could be, but oddly it was never really stated literally for the record.

At the end of the article, the author stated that when asked for comment on Fudge's comments, the Minister for Magic had nothing of substance to say on the topic. Other witches and wizards were interviewed and all agreed that something should be done, about whatever it was. Harry rapidly shook his head to clear it. The byline on the article was Mediastinus Delatio, whom Harry had not met, that he could remember.

Harry folded the paper back the way it had been and put it back with its fellows. He had field shadowing again the next day and considered that he better get used to this routine since, after his training was completed, every day of every week would be like this.

- 888 -

Friday after his field shadowing, Harry wanted to go out, but Tonks did not think it a good idea. She was tired from the double shift and lay down at Harry's insistence for an afternoon nap. Harry sat with Kali in his hands, trying to get a better sense for what his pet felt. He pulled one of her leathery wings out straight and let it go again, repeating this until he could catch the feel of that through his link with her. Her wings were marred by long, vivid scars from battling the demons at Malfoy Manor, but the old wounds did not bother her; he knew this because when he traced the bubbly lines he felt no distress from her.

"Shall we give it a try?" Harry asked her in a whisper, holding her up to stare closely at into her beady eyes. He carried her to the open window and commanded: "No pigeons."

With her wings pumping rapidly in the evening light, his pet resembled a violet puffball sailing over the garden wall. Sitting on his trunk, Harry closed his eyes and tried to see out of his pet's instead. She dived and swooped disconcertingly, lights and the twilight sky streaking diagonally one way and then the other. Harry had to grab hold of the solid window sill to keep his mind and dinner from rebelling. The distress grew and Harry lost contact with his pet. He used an Occlumency technique to clear his own emotions and imagined flying. This was relaxing but it did not bring his pet's direct experience back. Harry huffed and cupped his hands to the glass of the window to try to spot her, but she had flown out of sight.

The Chimrian would not fly far, Harry knew. She would hunt moths and night birds and return when she was satiated. On a whim Harry imagined being hungry and Kali came into his head and went away again like a passing cloud. Closing his eyes, he repeated this and found her more clearly this time and tried hard to hold onto her. When his vision of the streetlamps and passing car lights stabilized, he tried to steer her. She resisted, tugged side to side by scents drifting on the wind. Harry heard something unexpected: a woman's emotionally distressed voice raised high. He opened his eyes. Tonks lay soundly asleep on the bed and nothing stirred in the room. Harry held his breath and listened, but the occasional car out on the road was all he heard.

Realizing that Kali must have been the one who heard the voice, Harry closed his eyes again and searched for her. This took a few minutes, since she had been successful at hunting moths around a street light and was no longer as famished. Her vision swam in and out of Harry's mind's eye. When he heard the voice again, his instinct was strong enough to make Kali turn her head to tune into it better with her keen ears. She swerved in the direction of it on her own, picking up on Harry's curiosity.

Through her distorted, careening, fish-eye view Harry discerned the Peterson house with its tall glowing peaked windows. Harry thought he recognized the voices alternately yelling and he snapped back to his bedroom.

"Tonks!" Harry said, shaking her leg to wake her.

She sat halfway up with a jerk and grabbed up her wand while rubbing her eyes. "Yeah? What is it?"

"I think something is happening at the Peterson house. A fight or something with Mr. Peterson. We need to go over there." Harry was on his feet, straightening his robes and finding his shoes.

Tonks fell back onto the bed. "If it's a domestic, call the Muggle police."

Harry stared at her reposed form. "I don't want to leave this to the Muggles; Elizabeth and her mum are witches."

Tonks, groggy with fatigue, said, "You said the dad forbid magic over there, that makes it a Class Six household."

"Well . . ." Harry said, trying to find an argument because he had not expected this reaction.

"Call the Muggles in, Harry," she said, shifting her feet, making her boney knees more apparent.

"No," Harry said, now annoyed. "Elizabeth is my friend." Harry had found his shoes and he tugged them on hurriedly.

Tonks sat up. "You have to wait for me," she scolded.

"Hurry up, then," Harry scolded back.

Tonks, well practiced at jumping into duty, was up quickly. Harry Disapparated for the front steps of the Peterson house and listened, wishing for Kali's sensitive hearing, but his pet was off hunting again. He knocked on the door just as Tonks arrived behind him, wand out.

"You can hear the fight?" Tonks asked.

Harry shook his head. Tonks stashed her wand away. "Better pretend its a social call, then," she advised.

Harry put his wand away as the lights showing through the windows framing the door shifted to indicate closer ones had been switched on. The door clicked and Mrs. Peterson, more mousey than Harry imagined she could behave, cracked open the door and peered out at them.

"Hi," Harry said and, unable to concoct a neighborly reason for standing there, asked, "Everything all right?"

Somewhere inside the house a door slammed. Mrs. Peterson flinched backward. Mr. Peterson's voice filtered down the broad, white-carpeted stairs: "I know you've got one of those sinister things!" Pounding sounded and Mrs. Peterson partly closed the door, except her face was still blocking her from completely sealing it. The voice said, "And I told you I'd take it away if I caught you with another one!"

Harry reached out to push the door open farther, despite Rodger's voice in his memory telling him that barring clear danger to someone's life or limb, he should wait for an invitation. "Can we come in?" Harry asked. More banging sounded.

The door closed a little more. Harry, with a full Auror standing behind him, knew he was going to violate his training in Ministry rules and go in anyhow. He felt both light and heavy at the same time. Light with the knowledge of his imminent transgression against carefully drilled procedure and heavy with the notion that ongoing training would limit him from future transgression when he wished it would not.

He stopped the door with his foot. Mrs. Peterson hesitated. Tonks remained silent behind him.

"Open this door, young lady!" Filtered down with more pounding. "Ouch! What did you do to this door, you little witch! This is my house and I'll have none of that!"

Harry wished Elizabeth knew how to Apparate. A standstill fell briefly upon the house. Harry hoped that Mr. Peterson had given up, and perhaps he had, but just as Harry opened his mouth to ask again to be allowed inside, the sound came down of a door opening and banging against plaster.

"This what you want?" Elizabeth's nearly hysterical voice bounced down the stairwell.

"Don't you point that thing at me, young lady!"

Harry Disapparated for the upstairs corridor. Mr. Peterson had a tight hold on the wrist of his daughter's wand hand and was forcing her aim away, making the cords in Elizabeth's wrist stand out.

"Let me go!" Elizabeth shouted, voice strained. She pounded her father's arm with her free hand. A blast of hot sparks erupted from the wand and Mr. Peterson shoved Elizabeth away from him, hard enough to knock her down and make her cry out in surprise.

Harry jumped in between them as Tonks and Mrs. Peterson arrived. Harry left his wand in his pocket since he was dealing with a Muggle, but itched to have it in his hand.

"What are you doing in my house!" Mr. Peterson snarled, spittle flying from his angry mouth. He grabbed Harry by the front of his robes and jerked him forward, using his height and surprise to pull Harry onto his toes. Harry used a move he had learned from Vineet, and he swept his arm in an upward arc to break the man's grasp.

"Stop it," Harry ordered, catching his feet and settling into a low stance. Behind him he could hear Elizabeth rising with a single sob and her mother moved to help her. Harry did not trust the man in front of him enough to glance around. "What is your problem?" Harry asked him, furious.

"Get out of my house," Mr. Peterson ordered, low and nasty, head cocked forward, comb over flipped outward. "You have no right to be here."

"We'll leave as soon as we're certain everything will remain calm," Tonks informed the man with annoying calm.

"What are you supposed to be?" Mr. Peterson said to the pink-Mohawked Tonks. "You a double freak?"

"Leave her out of this," Harry said, stepping between the two of them now.

"This is all your doing." Mr. Peterson said, grabbing Harry again. Before Harry could react Mr. Peterson pushed him into the wall. Harry had been tossed against walls by spells all week, but this physical move triggered something new. He straightened himself slowly, keeping his back pressed flat. Across from him, Elizabeth nursed a bruise darkening her cheek. Her tragically unhappy, red-rimmed eyes peered at her father.

The white corridor darkened despite the copious, powerful electric lighting. Mrs. Peterson glanced up at the ceiling lamps in consternation. Harry remained pressed to the wall, breathing fast. He could feel things clambering at the interstice. It made his skin itch as they clawed at the barrier just beyond the walls, eager, hungry. They could smell Harry's fury and anger and they believed it meant a feeding was imminent. Harry imagined Mr. Peterson's horror should he unleash them and with effort, squashed the imagining. Blinking, Harry watched Tonks move in, hand held up to calm Mr. Peterson, other hand on her wand pocket.

Harry pushed himself away from the wall to stand straight, trying to bottle up all the anger. Too much had escaped already and Mr. Peterson, arguing insultingly with Tonks, deserved something. The creatures prowled and circled, impatient with a frantic hunger that made Harry breathe faster in fear.

Elizabeth disappeared into her room and reappeared with a trunk which, after a hissing argument with her mother, she hovered while biting her lip defiantly and rubbing her wrist. Harry went over to her, needing something concrete to distract himself.

"Can I take you to your friend's place?" Harry asked.

"You've never been there," Elizabeth said.

Impatient and a little rough, he grabbed her chin and pulled her gaze to his. "Just think of it."

Startled, she complied. To Tonks, Harry said, "I'll be right back."

Moments later, they stood in the entry hall of a quiet flat. They both breathed heavily in the stale air.

"She must be out," Elizabeth said shakily.

Jarred out of thoughts of hungry demons by her voice and the change of venue, Harry took over her trunk and set it inside. "Sit down, I'll wait with you," he said, despite what he had just said to Tonks.

She put her hands on his robe front. "You have to go right back," she insisted with surprising presence. Having her close was doing strange things to him, sending a flutter over his abdomen. She added firmly, "I don't want to get you into trouble. Go on." She let go and crouched beside her trunk and started plucking things out of it and setting them on the floor in neat piles. "Thanks," she said without looking back at him.

"You're going to be all right here?"

"Yeah, Diane will be fine with it. She kept insisting . . ." She trailed off and shook her head.

"I'll come back when I can; make sure everything is set," Harry said, thinking she was right, that he was going to be in trouble for leaving. "Owl . . . well, it's a little far . . . and you don't have an owl, anymore. Er, I'll come back first chance I get. I might have to bring my guard."

She looked up with a faint smile. "Thanks, Harry," she said wistfully.

Back in Shrewsthorpe, Harry arrived back in the upstairs hallway and found it empty. He found Tonks interviewing the Petersons downstairs by the front door. Mr. Peterson sent visual daggers Harry's way as he took up a spot beside the Auror. Tonks half-turned to Harry and he could hear her sigh between questions.

"That's all for now," Tonks said tiredly, flipping her notebook closed. "You'll be hearing from us with some follow-up paperwork, I'm sure."

On the way down the pavement, Tonks said, "They cooperated all right. They were grateful we hadn't called in the Muggle police." When Harry remained silent, striding rapidly beside her, Tonks added, "Not an Auror-level call. Usually Reversal handles these and refers it to the Wizard Family Council for followup."

Harry still kept silent. He was uncertain how angry he might get if he started talking. The creatures had retreated, but in addition to not wanting a fight with Tonks, he did not want to feel them prowling around again.

Tonks gave up on conversation and they were both silently grateful when she changed shifts with Hornisham. Harry thought they could work it out later, especially if they had not actually let a real argument get started.

After Tonks had gone, Harry quickly wrote out a note for Candide and told Hornisham that he needed to run an errand. Hornisham repacked the knitting she had pulled out and stood by the hearth to join him.

On the hill above Hogsmeade, in the waning evening light, Harry argued with his guard. "I really need to go speak to someone, alone."

Hornisham glared back, stubborn in the face of Harry's misplaced anger. "I don't care what you want. I'm on duty to see you come to no harm and that's what I aim to do."

"Look," Harry said. He stepped back and transformed into his animagus form, flapped twice and transformed back. "I'll fly up to the school like that. Will that be okay?"

She stared at him like a Third-Year on her first trip to Honeydukes. "A Mountain Gryffylis. Can I see that again?" she asked in dazed wonderment.

Harry dropped his anger and obliged. He tilted his cat-like head at her and shook himself before changing back.

"Yer one dangerous creature, aren't you?" she asked. "Well, I doubt anyone would bother you if'n yer like that. I'll wait over in the Hog's Head for you."

Once Harry took flight from Hogsmeade, he could not resist circling the lake and a taking a short, weaving flight over the Forbidden Forest. His Animagus form did not care that it was delaying, it just liked to feel the autumn breeze buffeting its fur.

The Defense office window was dark as was Hermione's window, so Harry flapped hard to reach the roof and landed on the slate, taking care not to knock any tiles loose with his claws. A steady breeze poured through the gap in the hills behind him. He pulled his wings tight to avoid catching it, but found he needed them for balance, and so he spread them again, but kept them angled and loose to not catch air and send him flying again.

With his animal eyes he watched the people walking on the street in Hogsmeade, alternating between orange and shadow as they moved from storefront to storefront. A mist moved in over the lake, radiant in the twilight.

Harry decided he should not wait any longer. He launched himself on newly fresh wings and dropped down to Lupin's lit window and transformed into himself with his toes just clinging to the outside sill.

Lupin answered his knock immediately. "Well, Harry," he said, putting his wand away. "Didn't expect to find you there. Wasn't certain whom to expect, really. Come on in."

A young student in Slytherin colors sat at the visitor's desk, eyes wide, mouth open. Harry said hello to the girl, but she did not respond.

"Do you know where Severus is?" Harry asked Lupin.

"He's in a meeting with Minerva. Rough board meeting yesterday, I hear. They're plotting something."

"The board, or Severus and Minerva?" Harry asked, honestly uncertain.

Lupin laughed. "Both, I expect. They've been at it almost two hours. I expect you could go on up. But, aren't you supposed to have a guard?"

"She's waiting in Hogsmeade for me. She agreed that in my Animagus form, in transit to the castle, I wasn't in any danger." Harry started to step away, but stopped to ask. "How are things with you?"

Lupin smiled, doubling the crinkling around his eyes. "Quite good, surprisingly."

Harry put his own concerns aside and enjoyed that answer. He almost asked how his cousin was, but held off in the presence of the student. "I'll stop by on my way out," Harry promised.

With a slightly lighter heart, Harry made his way to the Headmistress' Tower. Guessing the password required three minutes of racking his brains for types of tea and coffee. "Macchiato" finally worked and the gargoyles leapt aside. Harry stared at the turning staircase, lost in overlapping memory for several breaths. As bad as suspicion of him sometimes became, as bloodyminded and annoying as the Ministry could be, this place, with everything in order as it should be, acted like a balm on his nerves. Harry stepped onto the stairs and rode it to the top, looking forward to seeing McGonagall, even as reluctant as he was to explain to his guardian what had transpired that evening.

"Harry, what a pleasant surprise," McGonagall greeted him when the door swung open. Snape's eyes came up from the scroll before him, keen, as expected.

"Sorry to interrupt. I just wanted to talk to Severus for a few minutes."

"Of course, my boy, this meeting has gone on far too long already."

"Is there a problem with the board?" Harry asked Snape as his guardian rolled the scroll before him and tossed the tassels around it.

McGonagall answered. "Some pressure to make changes that we are not certain are in the best interests of the school. This sort of tug of war goes on all the time, but I feel this time, we are the rope rather than the mud puddle as we usually are." To Snape, she said, "You can go on. I'll finish composing this letter to Cornelius and run it by you in the morning before sending it off."

On the way to Snape's office, Harry asked, "What's Fudge want?"

"Power, so he does not feel as insignificant as he actually is," Snape replied.

"More specifically, I meant," Harry said. "He's been talking to the press like he's in charge of everything. I don't get it."

Snape waited until the clusters of students had finished greeting Harry and moved on. "What exactly is it that is unclear?"

"He's just head of the Department of Mysteries. I guess I don't understand why Minister Bones doesn't slap him down."

Snape unsealed his office door. "I expect because she is busy with real work. But I agree, she has probably missed her chance to do so without creating a stir while doing it."

"Did I say that?" Harry asked, confused.

"You implied it. I assumed intentionally," Snape said with a slight sneer as he waved the lamps up. "Sit down. I assume Fudge is not what is on your mind." He himself leaned back against his desk where he could tower over the visitor's chair.

Harry took a seat and rested his eyes on a crowded shelf behind the desk. "You wanted me to tell you what was going on with me."

"Yes, I did. What is going on?" When Harry hesitated, Snape asked, "Is this a complimentary status report or did something happen this evening?"

"Something happened."

Into the empty air that ensued while Harry formulated, Snape prompted, "But you are reluctant to say exactly what?"

"Yeah," Harry agreed.

Snape rubbed his hands together before propping them back on the desk edge behind him. "Does anything require fixing at this time?"

"What? No. Everything's all right right now." True, Harry reminded himself, things could be much worse.

"What happened?" Snape asked.

Harry tossed his head to the side, uneasily dipping into memory. "Elizabeth got into a row with her father . . . over magic, of course. I don't know how bad it would have got if we hadn't intervened, Tonks and I, that is. Mr. Peterson was as angry as I've ever seen my uncle Vernon. He wasn't rational. And . . . Tonks wasn't happy. Thought we should leave it to the Muggle police. I think she's jealous, partly." Harry sighed and rubbed his neck, more pained about everything. "Anyhow, the bad part was when I was trying to separate Mr. Peterson and Elizabeth. I mean, they were fighting. And I got angry. I mean, how could someone do that to their daughter. Well, not like Elizabeth wasn't part of it, but still."

Harry faded out, remembering the scene, Elizabeth's mussed hair and red, distressed face. The way she nursed her wrist.

"And?" Snape prompted.

"You know, I told you how I fed Voldemort, the other Voldemort, to the Raksashas." No response came to this. "Well, they seem to, er, expect that now. If I'm really angry at someone, that is."

Snape stood in stillness, arms crossed but relaxed. "Did you let them into this world?"

"No," Harry said. "No, nothing happened. I just didn't like the . . . feel of it. I had more control over them before, I thought. This time I was angry enough that I could feel the Dark Plane. It was too close, and the creatures . . . they expected to be fed. It felt awful, their hunger did." Harry rubbed his nose. "I don't know how to explain it. It's not like I had to do anything for them, but they were right there, not visible but really close by and they just expected."

Harry sighed again and slowed his breathing. "Maybe I'm over-reacting."

"No." Snape stepped casually around Harry to stand by the window. The one Harry had once repaired with glass beyond which demons swam. "You are not over-reacting." He sounded far away as he spoke and perhaps a little tired, which gave Harry a twinge because he had rendered Tonks into the same state. "I can only implore you to leave the Dark Plane alone, but I know you will not do so. The temptation of it is too strong, if only for the power it gives you to move at will, barrier or not, in utter silence."

He spun on his heel and faced Harry down. "Did you get the sense that the creatures were angry with you as a result of your resisting them?"

"No," Harry replied. "They don't get anything if I don't give it to them."

Sharply, critically, Snape said, "You treat them too lightly."

"I have to," Harry argued, to growing annoyance on Snape's side. "You don't seem able to understand that." Harry pointed at his own chest. "Either I have confidence that I control them or I lose myself to them, completely. That's how this works."

Silence fell. Harry broke it by more quietly pointing out, "I've tried to explain this before."

"You have. I remember. I just cannot accept that there is no middle ground where you can respect that these creatures are not tools to be toyed with by you, without consequence."

"I didn't have any choice but to use them against Voldemort," Harry said.

"You had a choice about whether to fight Voldemort," Snape pointed out.

"Did I?" Harry asked. "It didn't feel like it."

Next: Chapter 14

At the sound of claws on the window, Snape raised his head and waved the lamps in the room up. The noise turned out to be his owl, Franklin. Snape removed the small, unaddressed missive from the owl's leg. It contained just three short lines.

Harry is having nightmares.

He will not discuss them with me.

He knows I am sending you this owl.

Author's Notes
Yes, very long gap. Life has been too much lately. It isn't getting much saner soon either, but trust that the next chapter will appear eventually.

Chapter 14: Chafing
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Chapter 14 -- Chafing

Ron arrived at breakfast time on Saturday and took Hornisham's place as Harry's guard. Harry was quite pleased to see him. "Let's get out, all right?" Harry said to him before managing even "hello".

Ron shrugged and took the seat beside Harry. "Mrs. Snape," he said, greeting Candide.

Candide gestured with a rasher-laden fork. "Didn't actually change my name," she pointed out.

"Ah," Ron said, "Good plan that." He paused to let his mind drift. "How shall I call you? Harry's New Mum?"

Harry coughed on his juice.

"'Mrs. Snape' is fine," Candide stated slowly. "'Candide' is fine."

"'Mrs. Professor'," Ron suggested in a tone of trying out the sound of it.

"You gave the right passcode, didn't you?" Harry asked his friend in dismay.

"You tell me," Ron replied. A full plate of breakfast appeared before him. "All right!" he cheered lightly.

"Didn't you eat yet?"

"I did," Ron said, eagerly picking up his fork while carefully surveying the diverse field before him.

"Guess you are Ron," Harry commented quietly.

Ron, still chewing a sausage, asked Candide, "So, what names are you thinking of?"

Harry pricked his head up. Candide replied, "Apuleius maybe. Argentio is nice too."

"Ah, so you haven't got to the Bs in the book yet," Ron said, nodding knowingly. "I have an aunt named Argentinia," he went on between bites. "But that's because they were running out of girls names on that side. That's how my mum got the name 'Molly'. They say granddad really meant to say 'golly!' but his mouth was full at the time, or so the story goes."

Harry and Candide shared a silent laugh.

"Such big families," Harry said, shaking his head. "I can't imagine."

"Ready for a brother, right?" Candide asked with amused force.

Harry did not want her to worry about him, of all things. "Yeah. I'm looking forward to it. It's just a baby. How hard could that be?"

Candide seemed to freeze, but then she said, "I hope you're right, but I somehow don't think you are."

"Oh," Harry said. "What are babies like?" he asked Ron.

Ron raised and lowered his boney shoulders. "Loud, smelly. They get into things. Sometimes magic comes flying off of them and then their nappies won't stay on . . . you'll find them dangling from the chandelier in there..."

"The baby or the nappies?" Harry asked, not sure he wanted to hear which.

Ron did not reply, just went on with: "The windows will all shatter from this hyper-magic crying . . ." He waved his hand dismissively. "You wouldn't believe what happened when my cousin took her baby daughter to a croquet match once. They never did find all the hoops."

Given Candide's quizzically alarmed expression, Harry thought it best to interrupt. "Well, we should go, maybe."

Harry, as a quick way of coming up with a plan, mentioned that it was certainly looking like a great day to stroll up and down Diagon Alley, and he dragged his friend off to do just that.

Half the wizarding world was out that morning, it seemed, and as well as recognizing many old school chums, they encountered Aaron, window shopping before Madam Malkin's.

"Don't you have field work?" Harry asked.

Aaron gave the hand sign for "taking care of it", which may, as strange as it seemed, mean he was doing his field work right then. Aaron turned and greeted Ron a bit loudly, and chummily suggested they enter the store. The shopkeeper glanced up and gave the fleeting impression that she had expected someone else.

Aaron perused the racks in the manner of a connoisseur who expects to be disappointed with absolutely everything. He made a big scene of looking for robes for a nice dinner out with his mum.

Madam Malkin shuffled over to him, sliding the racks of robes around to better reach him. "Well, what will your father be wearing, dear?" she asked him.

"If he has the misfortune of being there, it would presumably be in the same tailcoat we buried him in three years ago."

Madam Malkin held her hands up then placed one on Aaron's arm. "So, sorry, young man, I should have remembered that. You are certainly in here often enough. Well, how about this one." She held up a green set of robes with maroon lace trim. "I found it in the warehouse. Vintage, from Italy."

Harry thought there was absolutely no chance his dapper friend would even consider those quaint and studiously old-fashioned robes, but Aaron held them up in the light of the window for inspection, and took a long time about it.

Ron nudged Harry, who also thought it may be time to move on. But Harry also suspected something more was going on, so he brushed Ron off. Indeed, not five minutes later--while Aaron stood before the triptych mirror in the back of the store, alternately studying the decorative back hem and checking the sleeve length on a set of robes for which it was frankly surprising that neither he nor they burst spontaneously into flames upon his donning them--the door chime mutely clanged and three skulky figures entered.

There was something odd about the tri-some that was not immediately quantifiable. They resembled two brothers and a sister in their mid-twenties, but Harry did not recognize them from Hogwarts as he would expect to. Aaron went on, deliberating about the robes, sounding spoiled about what he disliked, but Madam Malkin dutifully agreed with everything he said.

One of the wizards circled around, desultorily shopping, and came up short upon encountering Harry beside the mirror. He recovered and moved on with a quick gesture to the other two that would have been easy to miss if one were not looking for it. They gathered in the far corner and the woman shifted robes on a rack while they bent their heads together. Aaron's gaze flickered over to them and then to Harry before he resumed his unsatisfiable shopper routine.

Harry bit his lip. He was in the way, perhaps. Aaron was on duty; Harry was certain now. He was staking out the shop and Harry was disrupting that. But Aaron could have suggested Harry leave before now and had not done so. Harry casually made a comment to Aaron about the green color not being flattering to him because it would imply he was proud of being a Slytherin. Aaron sent a surprised and insulted look his way, but Harry missed it; he was glancing at the group in the corner, determined to memorize their faces, which wasn't easy; they were very ordinary looking beyond their dark, shiny hair. No particular features of their faces stood out to make note of.

The group broke out of their whispered conversation and departed the store with a last challenging glance at Harry. Ron had started to search the business attire rack out of sheer boredom and noticed none of this. Aaron sighed at his image in the mirror and slipped off the robes like one removing a sweaty uniform after a long match.

"Oh, you don't want those?" Ron said brightly. "Can I try them?"

Aaron peered down at the robes, bundled like rubbish in his hands, and then back up at Ron. For a second he seemed to contemplate intervening and refusing, but he handed the robes over and relinquished the spot before the mirrors.

"They do look better on Ron," Harry whispered to Aaron a few minutes later while Ron studied himself in the mirror. Indeed the lace matched his hair and that made a world of difference.

"I have a spare Slytherin pin you can borrow," Aaron suggested when Ron pinched the neck closed with his fingers and lifted his chin with a staid air.

"Was I in the way?" Harry asked Aaron in a whisper.

"No," Aaron said, shaking his head while critically eyeing Ron.

"Was that part of the gang that came in here?" Harry asked.

"Probably," Aaron replied, far more interested in Ron's attire than Harry's conversation.

"Well . . . we should go back to the Ministry then," Harry insisted. "I remember what they look like."

"No, you don't," Aaron calmly countered.

Harry stared at him. "I don't?"

"Shacklebolt said they'd probably be Rho-Potioned and you couldn't know what they really looked like."

"Row-Potioned?" Harry repeated. He'd never heard of that.

"Did you see them with all black hair too?" Aaron asked.


"Hm. Kingsley said the potion had a regression to the mean effect. So maybe they are from somewhere south."

Harry shook his head, not following at all.

Aaron leaned closer to explain. "The potion makes you appear as an average of everyone you've ever met. So, you can't tell what they look like, but you know they aren't from, say, Sweden."

"Right," Harry said, following that part, at least.

"I better go report in." Aaron said. "Shacklebolt said to come right back if anything happens, and on top of that, I can't stand to watch real Galleons get put down for those robes . . . no matter how good they look on someone. Or maybe because they are starting to look good on someone."

- 888 -

Rodgers teased Harry on Monday during training. "We must not be giving Potter enough field time . . . he's repeatedly went out hunting for his own over the weekend." Harry's fellows grinned, while Harry stared at his fingernails. Rodgers went on, "If you want more assignments, I have one for you. Fudge wants a few Aurors assigned to him half-time. I'm half-tempted to half-send you, if you are so bored."

Harry balked. "Fudge and I don't get along very well."

"Really? I hadn't noticed," Rodgers stated airily. "Fudge wants to form a permanent committee to focus on combatting organized crime."

"Er," Harry asked even though it pained him to support Fudge, "Don't we need that?"

Rodgers raised a pale brown brow and glared at Harry. "We don't have time for committees. Fudge used to do this to us all the time. Six months of pulling us one way and then tugging us to something completely different for the next six months. All the time, meetings and reports. We never accomplished anything and as soon as we turn our backs on all the other problems to jump on one alone, all heck in a handbasket breaks loose and we have to scramble to just get things under control. Minister Bones has been a god-send. If she sticks her nose in, it's just to ask if we need anything; she otherwise leaves us alone to get things done."

Tridant piped up when Rodgers ran out of diatribe. "The Prophet seems to think she's asleep and lacks leadership." It was not clear from his tone if he were baiting their trainer or just wanted to get a response.

Rodgers said, "I prefer to think she just trusts us to do our jobs and knows we can't do them from a meeting room or stuck behind a dictation quill. Let them use their own personnel; we have enough of our own troubles."

During lunch, upon which Harry was forced to use the slightly stinky, poison-revealing drops, Harry fell thoughtful, perhaps due to having to eat slowly while half holding his nose. It was occurring to him that he had not felt Moody following him for quite a while. Harry dumped the remaining half of his sandwich and went to find Mr. Weasley.

Harry found the department head in the file room, leaning over a teetering stack of files on a cabinet, taking notes from the top one while pressing a finger on it to keep it from spilling onto the floor. "Hello Harry, need this drawer?" he asked, when Harry stepped over.

"I just wanted to ask you something."

Mr. Weasley closed the top file to give Harry his full attention and said, "Go on."

"Is Mad-Eye still working for the Department of Mysteries?"

"I think so," Mr. Weasley replied after glancing around the empty room for anyone possibly listening in. "Fudge has been repeatedly requesting manpower from us at the same time as he's been bragging that he has someone mysterious working for him who he claims is better than anyone we have to offer."

"Clearly, he thinks flattery will get him somewhere," Harry commented.

"What? Oh, yes," Mr. Weasley chuckled. "Clearly." He sorted through his files seemingly at random and said, "You should come for dinner this Wednesday, the whole clan will be there."

"I'd like that, thanks," Harry said.

Harry had started to turn back to the heavy door, but stopped when Mr. Weasley asked, "May I inquire what made you ask about Moody?"

"Oh," Harry said, not meaning to be opaque. "I was just thinking that I hadn't noticed him following me lately. Not that I'm complaining."

"If Cornelius is giving him the kind of pointless assignments I know he's expecting of us, I expect Moody is rather busy. More so now because the Department of Mysteries had one of their technicians injured in that fire Thursday night."

"They did?" Harry asked.

"Yes. It was just announced this morning to the Ministry at large. Probably will be in the press this afternoon."

"What started the fire?" Harry asked. "Was it an accident or a fight?"

Mr. Weasley sighed, gave Harry a firm look, and then appeared to give in, "Looks like an accident right now. Felton had taken some work home and it got out of hand. He's expected to recover eventually."

"What was he working on?"

Mr. Weasley smiled faintly as he said, "Too many questions, Harry." He scratched his head, tapped the files before him and admitted, "Department of Mysteries refused to give us a straight answer to that anyhow. I expect Alastor will get to the bottom of it for them, since they haven't told us enough to help, really. Moody is sharp enough to handle it, I expect."

Harry was less certain. "I wonder who was following him," he muttered aloud.

Mr. Weasley returned his full attention to Harry. "Following whom, Moody?"

Harry recovered from having spoken his internal musings. "Yeah. He accused me of doing it."

"He accused you? I'd expect he'd realize you've seen enough of him."

Harry shrugged, which was a kind of lie, since he knew very well why Moody suspected Harry of being skilled enough to slip within Moody's copious warning barriers undetected, should he care to.

"Maybe Alastor really should retire for good," Mr. Weasley said, shaking his head. "So! I can tell Molly to expect you on Wednesday?"

"Yes, sir," Harry said.

Mr. Weasley winked. "Kingsley's been praising your field shadowing. Good to see you're settling down a bit, Harry." He sounded inordinately pleased. "Still more curious than you're really allowed to be at this stage. . ."

Harry rubbed his hands together. "I've been finding it a bit easier to follow the rules lately. For some reason . . ." he added despite knowing that the rules felt better now after seeing how miserable the world would be without them.

"Probably just growing up, Harry," Mr. Weasley said patronizingly, in a way that set Harry off slightly.

"Maybe," Harry said, not conceding at all to his own mind.

During the afternoon, Rodgers had to leave them for several hours to drill on their own. When this happened again the next day, Harry and Aaron just happened to slip down to the tearoom for an unscheduled break and just happened to loiter outside the main offices, listening for any clue as to what was happening.

Harry wished for a set of Extendable Ears as he sipped a cup of tea he did not really want, just for an excuse. His fallback plan was to weasel some information out of Tonks if she turned out to be his guard that night. There in the corridor with the steaming, thin tea under his nose, Harry felt a wave of general frustration that they were not allowed to help more.

Aaron cocking his ear toward the doorway pulled Harry back to their spying. Rogan was saying: "Ragnok insists that the wizards in question are just trying to cheat them. They are threatening to close the vaults except during an hour a day and force everyone through some rather unsavory screening."

Tonks voice then: "Last time they did that Diagon Alley had to resort to barter and a few merchants started accepting pounds. It was chaos. I couldn't pay my rent and had to befuddle my landlord to avoid being thrown out of my place."

Harry and Aaron stared at each other while they listened to more descriptions of dismayed Goblins. Harry wondered again what Moody was doing for Fudge. He thought about who else he might ask. It occurred to him with a chill of realization that he could slip into the Department of Mysteries to see for himself what was happening there. He stopped listening to the Auror conversation and fixated on what he knew first-hand of the Department of Mysteries. The memories were fraught with stress and bad outcomes but within that thorny thicket, the visions of it were as clear as the paneled wall he stood before now.

"What do you think?" Aaron asked, jarring Harry away from hatching plans.

"I have to think about it more," Harry said, answering only to his own thoughts.

"Hm, sounds to me like the shakedown is taking in Gringotts," Aaron said with confidence.

"What?" Harry said, wishing he had paid more attention.

"Well, you know. Extortion and fraud, that's usually where this type make their money."

"Er, yeah," Harry agreed. His mind jumped to another mystery topic that he wished he could resolve. It occurred to him that Aaron would be an optimum guard to take on a mission to check in on Belinda. Harry had found it inconvenient to try and convince Tonks to make a social call to the Minister's office, but Aaron would not mind, nor would he ask too many questions. "Hey, if you think the other three wouldn't miss us, let's go up and see someone I want to talk to."

Aaron rubbed his elbow. "I could stand to skive off for a while longer. These power-building drills are really taking a toll on my quest for a bruise-free lifestyle."

As they headed for the stairs, Harry said with a laugh, "A bruise-free what?"

"Bruises aren't as sexy as they used to be. Healers can't do a thing for them, so I'd prefer to abstain, thank you."

Up in the Minister's office, Aaron showed just how valuable he could be . . . he sauntered over to the other assistant, hunched over a pile of reports taking notes, and began to chat her up. Harry did not think they knew each other, but within seconds Aaron had her smiling and completely distracted from everything else.

"Hello, Harry," Belinda said, looking up from a typewriter she had opened up before her, the letter-tipped metal arms splayed at random up and backwards.

"Hello," Harry returned. "Er, what are you doing?"

"Muggle correspondence." She shook her head and moved in with a tiny pick to clean out the circular letter parts. "We used to have an old witch down in records that could charm a quill to mimic a typewriter, but she retired and now we have to keep this thing running for Muggle organization-bound letters."

Harry blinked at that and considered that a typewritten letter probably looked as out of date as a quilled one these days. He watched her work for a minute, cleaning the black gunk out of the silver letter shapes and folding each one back down, repeatedly having to unfold some because they refused to go back in if pushed in the wrong order. Harry was thinking about criminal gangs and Belinda confessing that she did not want to tell anyone at the Ministry what was troubling her because she would lose her job. Belinda sighed and rubbed her blackened fingers on a white rag.

"Muggle machines aside, how are you doing?" Harry asked.

Belinda shrugged. She cleaned her hands more thoroughly with a spell before reaching under the wheeled typewriter table for a sheet of crisp real paper. The paper was fed into the rollers of the machine and adjusted with much clacking and rolling back and forth.

"Sorry, I don't mean to ignore you, but I'm behind on getting these done." She stopped and glanced at the other office assistant. Harry glanced that way too and found the woman completely involved in her conversation with Aaron.

In a low voice, Belinda said, "I've wanted to have coffee with you, but I notice that you are always under guard now. Makes it kind of hard to talk to you." She said this in a way that maybe implied Harry was at fault for the situation.

Harry imagined that she had vacillated on whether to tell him what was wrong and he wished he had not missed finding out. "I know."

The door to the Minister's office opened and Harry stood straight, not prepared to deal with Bones right then, but it was just one of the other assistants, a skinny man with rimless glasses and a shiny bald top to his head. He closed the door behind him and moved to the shelves without once glancing at the strangers in the room.

Quiet still, Harry said, "You know, if you need anything, just owl. I'll shake my guard if I have to."

"You shouldn't do that," she said, firmly correcting him. She bit her lip. "Don't shake your guard even if I ever do owl you saying you should."

The male assistant took something back into the inner office and Harry had a glimpse of Bones at her desk, reading something by holding it far from her eyes.

Harry was still trying to grasp her last statement when she said, "There's a meeting soon . . . so, you should probably go."

Harry tried to Legilimize her in the last glance before she bent back to typing by poking at one key at a time, but did not catch anything beyond an image of two Goblins carrying gold-plated briefcases.

Aaron did not need to be prompted. He caught sight of Harry stepping back from the desk and immediately closed the conversation he was having. The woman said, "Hey, we should have drinks sometime."

Aaron turned on a deadly smile and replied, "That would be lovely," without promising anything firm.

In the corridor, Harry said out of the corner of his mouth, "I'd hate to be your girlfriend."

"I'd hate for you to be my girlfriend too," Aaron agreed, deadly serious, but he laughed hardily after.

On the stairs, Aaron said wistfully, "Why is it the one you've got never seems as nice as the ones you don't?"

Harry needed the whole trip down to come up with a response. With his hand on the door latch to their floor he said, "That attitude sounds guaranteed to lead to unhappiness."

"If I had your fame, I could have anyone," Aaron said dreamily.

Harry still held the door closed. "You have money; isn't that enough?"

"It does help," Aaron agreed. "My mum still doles it out. Insists I'm not ready to have it all in a lump sum yet. I think she just wants to drag me home for luncheons at will. Potential girlfriends do not like to learn that this is the case."

Harry opened the door. "If they can't handle that, you're better off without them."

That evening, Harry unusually chaffed under having Tonks as a guard. He wanted to try slipping into the Department of Mysteries and could not work out a scheme to get enough time alone to do it. Candide came home for dinner, hair mussed, eyes sore looking. When the settings arrived with a sparkle, she carefully straightened the silverware and waited for the food while tapping her finger on the wood.

Concerned, Harry asked, "Are you going to make it through November?"

Candide brightened. "Oh yes. This has been an easy year so far."

"Really?" Harry asked.

When the plates of food arrived, Candide's was not only larger but piled with fruit on one half. Candide stared at it before popping a grape into her mouth. "Winky's started doing this to me," she commented, not sounding annoyed, but not sounding pleased either

"Maybe Severus should be here looking after you," Harry said.

"No," Candide denied, holding up a peach for examination. "I'm fine. Winky has her own ideas, is all."

"Hm," Harry muttered, unconvinced.

Candide nibbled a second grape thoughtfully and said, "He'd come home if you needed him."

"I don't. I just think you do," Harry returned.

"I don't, but if you are insisting, it makes me think you think you need him."

"What?" Harry asked with a sharp head shake.

Tonks chimed in, "This is the strangest argument I've ever witnessed."

"It's not an argument," Harry snapped lightly, then sighed sheepishly.

That night as Hornisham took over because Tonks was on duty, Harry sat partly reading and mostly thinking about how he might get away long enough to do some investigating. This restriction on him was making him ill tempered, which made it difficult to concentrate. There was nothing for it; he had to convince Mr. Weasley to cancel his guard. Of course he could hardly tell him why he needed the guard removed. And he doubted he could convince Mr. Weasley to agree. But he had to try.

Harry frowned into a small book on the history of weather hexes, specifically on a chapter covering combined spells to create storm clouds. Hornisham was knitting again, but this time the hooks and perls built up something wide and square that was unlikely to be a scarf given the heavy grinding sound of it rubbing on the hearthstone. The creak and grind of metal needle on metal cord had grown into a background noise for Harry's home life, a background noise for his lack of freedom.

Harry stared at the inexpertly typeset and crookedly printed page before him. The book would be even thinner if the margins were not so wide. He considered that he could trick Hornisham easily enough with a Doppelgänger or a Memory Charm, but that felt like too cruel a trick.

That night Harry slept poorly. He dreamed that Rodgers was unrelenting in striking him with spells. Harry refused to beg for him to stop, even when he discovered his hand empty of wand and could not find it on the floor near his knees. Battered with spells intended to improve him, Harry crouched with his hands over his head in a futile effort to protect himself.

Harry squinted around his dimly lit bedroom after Hornisham prodded him awake with a knitting needle. His trunks, against the wall where they belonged, sat in blurry stillness, as did his wardrobe. All was normal.

"Potter, Potter," Hornisham repeated in a little voice when Harry did not respond.

Harry rolled away from her to collect himself. Across the room, Kali crawled violently inside her cage for a burst, then quieted.

"Ack," Hornisham muttered and returned to her knitting.

- 888 -

Harry used dinner at the Burrow to begin the long impossible work of convincing Mr. Weasley to remove his guard. Several other early-arriving Weasleys were more than happy to throw their support behind Harry. Both Weasley parents insisted that Harry's arguing that nothing had happened to him was all the more reason to keep him under guard, not remove it. Ron refused to take sides, as did Bill. Harry let the topic drop when Percy arrived, new girlfriend in tow.

The Weasley family all stopped what they were doing, heads cranked around, bodies frozen in place, when the pair entered from the Floo. Percy led the woman in by the hand, except her hand remained a fist. Her brow and lip edge glittered with silver rings and her shoulder-length hair was of a black hue that reflected absolutely no light, so that it appeared a blurry hole following behind her face. Her clothing, with long silver chains adorning it at random, reflected slightly more light than her hair.

Percy sulkily glanced at his family members in turn and stopped before Mrs. Weasley. "Mum, this is Vespera. Vespera Eyre."

"How do you do, dear?" Mrs. Weasley managed faintly.

Vespera may have smiled, may have sneered. The others were recovering enough to send funny-faced glances at each other.

Harry did not intentionally sit beside Vespera during dinner, but at the last moment he rescued Ginny from having to do so. Percy's date was wearing something mildly cursed and it seemed to vibrate in concert with the bizarre scent of her perfume, so Harry ate little and began to contemplate going home early. Dinner was a mute affair punctuated by one or the other of the parents attempting to learn anything from Percy's date. She was entirely monosyllabic, so this was a slow, tortuous process for all present. Percy exuded an air of smugness and attempted to dote on his date whenever possible, to no reaction from her.

When Harry made to leave, to loudly expressed disappointment, Mr. Weasley started to say, "About that issue we were discussing-"

Harry cut him off. "I'll see you tomorrow about it, sir." He thought he had dodged Mr. Weasley's revelation, but Percy narrowed his eyes at his father at the far other end of the table. Harry frowned, but then considered that perhaps this was perfect. If Percy was after Harry, then him believing Harry may lose his guard could draw him out where Harry could catch him. "I'll come to your office in the morning, if that's all right, sir."

Mr. Weasley gestured that Harry could do as he pleased. Ron and Ginny and then the twins even, all jumped up to escort Harry home. Ginny was beside Harry, looking the most in need of a breather, so he chose her.

Back in Shrewsthorpe, Harry said, "I don't like the way Percy Legilimizes your dad."

Ginny replied simply, "I don't like Percy."

The house was quiet. Harry stepped into the hall and glanced around, ran the barrier detection spells, and then turned to Ginny. "I need a guard that will give me some leeway. I have some things I need to do."

"Won't Tonks give you some room?" Ginny asked, mystified.

Harry huffed. "Yeah. Good question." It pained him to wonder about it. "It involves the Ministry, so I think not."

"Harry," Ginny began but then hesitated for quite a while. "Harry, if you don't trust Tonks, you know, to tell her pretty much anything, I don't think it's going to work out, long-term."

Harry stared at her pale, freckled face in the candlelight. He did not want to say aloud that she was probably right, but part of him had already turned traitor and had started pounding on him with that notion. He should just trust Tonks and if she did not trust him in return, well, then it was not meant to be. Standing there in the dining room, with the light reflecting brightest on the glass of the framed photographs on the sideboard, it seemed far too obvious that this issue was the problem between them.

"Harry?" Ginny finally prodded.

"Yeah," Harry breathed. Not admitting to anything, just acknowledging that she was still there.

Ginny flipped her hair around, perhaps out of impatience. "Is your next guard here?"

Harry rose out of his lowly spiraling thoughts. "No."

Ginny pulled out a chair and took a seat. "I'll wait." She drummed her fingers. "If I wish for a Butterbeer, will--" A Butterbeer bottle sparkled into place before her. "That's lovely," she said happily.

Harry sat across from her. He should fetch his readings, but did not move to do so. "I'm sick to death of being guarded. I can't even remember what it was like to be alone."

"That doesn't sound that bad."

Harry gazed around the room. "I wonder where Hornisham is, or Tonks, or whomever it is supposed to be."

"You don't know?"

"No." Harry too drummed his fingers. "I could sneak away right now," he said, sitting up.

Ginny's mouth made a popping sound on the bottle top when she tugged it away suddenly. "No you aren't."


"You're staying here. We don't know what happened to your guard and I'm not going to get reamed for losing track of you. Sit."

Harry settled back into the chair, surprised by her.

"Where is it you want to go anyhow?" she asked.

"I'm not telling you."


Harry crossed his arms and rotated a quarter turn away from her. A second butterbeer appeared to replace Ginny's just emptied first one. Harry pulled his wand, summoned his books and slouched far back to read.

"Maybe you should go tell your dad that my guard is late," Harry said after a while.

Ginny considered this suggestion. "Why don't we just send an owl through the Floo?"

"No owls around at the moment," Harry stated a bit stiffly.

"Boy, you are just a cheery bundle of gnome dancing this evening, aren't you? I didn't notice that earlier while you were sitting in the shadow of She-Who-Must-Not-Speak-In-Complete-Sentences." When Harry expressed some chagrin at his behavior, Ginny said, "We can both go back and tell him." She stood. "Come on."

"You know, I may just be too early returning," Harry said, reluctant to further discuss the issue of his guards in front of Percy, who may still be there.

Ginny settled back and took up her full Butterbeer. "I can wait."

Harry yearned to point out that he could defeat Voldemort, single-handed, should he choose to return that evening, so he certainly did not need a guard, but he kept silent.

Hornisham arrived shortly after Candide did. She and Ginny were involved immediately in a detailed discussion of Candide's pregnancy so far. Harry listened in, wondering at this instant connection between the two of them that seemed to spawn from nothing more than that they were both female. Hornisham was a welcome distraction. She gave the correct code word and Ginny departed with a warmer goodbye to Candide than to Harry.

That night, Harry dreamt he was attending Percy and Vespera's wedding. The tent and the guests were similar to Snape's wedding and everyone waited anxiously for the bride. She finally arrived, in the form of a black rat, who scampered down the aisle before transforming into a women in a broad-skirted black dress heaped with layers of torn black lace. Everyone quieted for the ceremony and Harry longed to leap from his flimsy folding chair to shout that something was wrong, that it all had to stop. But he stayed put, stressed dearly by feeling it best he do so.

When Harry turned to his companion to whisper his concerns, he found Snape glaring flinty-eyed at him, in a manner that suggested they shared no history. Harry rose from his chair, collapsing it loudly. The surrounding guests turned in their seats to stare. At the front, the ceremony halted and Percy lifted his nose in the air and turned away.

Harry backed off, finding concerned faces where he least expected it: like upon the Malfoy family. Harry encountered the plastic window on the tent wall with his hand. The breeze snapped the side of the tent against his back, nearly knocking him forward into the nearest chairs.

He was in the wrong place, he realized with a prickly jolt. Heart racing, Harry felt along the wall of the tent until he found an opening and slipped through out to the damp darkness. Overhead, leaves clattered ominously, casting water droplets at him. Low clouds blocked the stars. He had to get home, even if he could not remember how he had arrived in this place.

Harry's room snapped into view when a knitting needle prodded him on the leg. Kali made a fuss in her cage and Hornisham shuffled over there and opened it. Harry sat up, groggily worried about his pet's reaction to a stranger, but Hornisham had no difficulty. She gripped the often vicious chimrian confidently in her broad palm, head pressed out between her index and middle finger, wings bundled, tiny legs flailing helplessly.

Harry relaxed and accepted his pet, who immediately crept under the coverlet and disappeared. He rubbed his tender and tired eyes and fell sideways on his pillow, determined to ignore his embarrassment. His guard resumed her usual spot by the hearth, but the clicks of her knitting needles did not return before Harry fell back into swirling sleep.

When Harry awoke the next morning, he found his room empty. He put on his dressing gown and headed downstairs where he found Candide and his guard standing in a silent tableau, clearly interrupted from speaking. With a frown he turned away to get ready for the day.

Harry's determination to ignore his embarrassment mutated into raw determination to get his way as he landed in the Ministry Atrium. He left his guard with a polite "thank you" and a quick bow, and marched upstairs to find Mr. Weasley. This was easy; the department head was in the corridor, talking to Percy and Fudge.

"You're here bright and early, Harry," Mr. Weasley said approvingly.

Harry Occluded his mind before studying anyone closely. "Lots to learn," Harry said sweetly. "Thought I'd get to it."

Mr. Weasley missed the tone and gestured at the training room opposite. "Well, don't let us get in your way."

Harry plopped down at the desk beside Vineet, who was reading to himself alone in the room.

"You're early too," Harry said to start a conversation, which failed. Harry sat straighter. "Hey, I want to check on a friend. Can you come along as a guard?" Harry asked this partly to avoid trouble, but also because he wanted the company. Instinctively, Harry thought Elizabeth would hold together better in Vineet's presence. She had still been quite upset the night of the fight when Harry had gone back to check that her friend was indeed allowing her to stay.

Elizabeth's roommate was just preparing to depart for work when Harry knocked on the door. The door opened before he could even lower his hand to his side. Diane smiled upon recognizing him and moved her substantial, skirted self out of the way for the two of them to enter. She scooped up her slim attaché from a chair and said, "I'll be back sixish, Lizzie."

Elizabeth stood from the breakfast-strewn table where she was reading official-looking papers. Harry made sure she remembered his fellow apprentice and asked how she was.

"Well enough," Elizabeth said, accentuating her strained words with a toss of her unstyled hair. "I have to figure out how to pay for term, which starts next week. I'm a little late applying for a loan for Michelmas."

"You're going to manage, right?" Harry asked.

Elizabeth threw her arms to the sides. "It's a problem I wanted to have--figuring out how to do this myself. It's part of getting away from dad." Her head bowed, highlighting her more than usually unkempt state.

"Do you want to come to dinner at my house?" Harry asked. "You're welcome to, you know."

She smiled wryly. "I appreciate that, Harry. It's maybe a tad too close to home. Maybe some other time. Don't worry about me."

"You're certain?" Harry asked, not liking the deep shade under her eyes that implied she had not slept well.

Vineet, cutting a serious figure in his dark robes with his arms crossed, stated, "Your friend appears to keep food well at hand."

Elizabeth smiled for real. "She does that. There's a small shop's worth of crisps and sweets stuffed in the cabinets and in the coat cupboard even."

It made Harry feel better to know she at least could not go hungry, but he wished he could help her more. She glanced at her watch and interrupted his wishing with: "Don't you have training?"

Harry reluctantly departed, remembering too well a long blur of feeling badly treated by his relatives. He did not manage to corner Mr. Weasley that day, despite numerous attempts. At least that night Tonks came home as a guard, so he was happy enough to put off his determination for another day.

While Harry caught up on assigned readings, Tonks tried out various nail colors and lengths, as well as finger lengths, between perusing the archive of newspapers that Candide allowed to pile up during Snape's absence. Harry thought that they should talk, but his uncertainty about what he should say, along with nervousness about how strained the conversation may turn, made his readings far more interesting than normal. His re-reading of a chapter on the psychology of obsessive magical animal collecting was interrupted by a three-foot long index finger tweaking him on the nose from across the table.

"Am I too boring?" Harry asked.

"Well, now that you ask . . ." Tonks grinned. "Actually wondering when Winky would bring dinner."

Harry glanced at the clock, surprised to find it so late. "If she's waiting on it, she thinks Candide will be back in time." He closed his books and sat back, thinking he might ask for a snack if it went much longer. The section of paper facing him had a photograph of Diagon Alley and a special sale to celebrate the five-hundred year anniversary of Eeylops Emporium.

Little has changed at Eeylops in the last five centuries, the article went. Witches and Wizards has been outfitting their owls, large and small, domestic and exotic, with the best Britain has to offer in feathered pet paraphernalia.

The article sounded far removed from the dark shadow of extortion and organized crime. Harry did not want to see his beloved Diagon Alley damaged in any way. He asked, "That gang is starting to operate on Diagon, aren't they?"

With a crinkling of paper, Tonks turned the news around to glance at what Harry was referring to. "Durumulna? We think they are trying," Tonks said, flipping the paper back.


Tonks shifted again behind the paper so that just her spiked hair appeared over the top. "Yeah, that's what they're calling themselves."

"So, someone's talked to them," Harry said.

"Someone's talked to someone who's talked to them," Tonks replied.

Tonks stayed for the night and when Harry woke from a dream of crawling over the musty Hogwarts dungeon floor, trying to escape something dreadful, he could never have imagined being so simultaneously glad she was there while also wishing to be alone.

Breathing heavily, Harry clutched his middle and sat hunched over his legs. The cool air from the covers falling away helped wake him up to the reality of his room.

"Harry," Tonks said, arm slipping around him. "Are you having dreams like this all the time?"

"Not always like this. They've all been different."

"Well, but, you've been having a lot of nightmares, haven't you? What's going on?"

Harry did not know what was going on. He refused to consider it too closely, especially right now when he should be asleep. Instead he focussed on her hand stroking his back.

"Harry?" she prompted after a while.

"Hm?" he grunted, not wanting to talk.

"What's brought on these nightmares?"

Harry shook his head and Tonks let it drop.

"All right. Can't force you to talk." She flopped back down on the bed.

Harry remained sitting up, thinking. He wished that he did not need to sleep. And despite wanting not to again that night, could not resist it. He fell asleep over his knees twice before relenting and taking up his pillow again properly.

Harry was facing down Snape, a chiseled, scarred and ruthless looking apparition in coal black, high-collared robes. Harry backed up. The cryptic scent of the dungeon was overlaid by the scent of dried blood and raw fear. Harry did not know what he was doing there; he only knew that he was already tired of running away and of fighting.

Harry's back met the shelves of colorful potion bottles and bloated creatures floating contorted in green-hued cloudy liquid. In contrast to Harry, who had no idea what he should do, Snape had a confident determination to his predatory approach. Harry's instincts flailed at the situation; if he could get away, why was he still here?

A long finger, nail stained and chipped, reached out brushed Harry's cheek. Harry forced himself through the floor . . . and awoke in the dust of the Dark Plane. His startled fear attracted a crowd of creatures.

Harry raised himself to all fours and slipped back into his bedroom.

"Harry!" Tonks shouted.

"Right here," Harry said from beside the bed.

"Oh, Merlin! What . . ." Her head came over the edge, highlighted by the bedside lamp. "You must have fallen out of bed and rolled under it. I couldn't find you."

Harry stood and sat on the edge of the bed with his hands on his head. He needed a minute to feel safe again.

"Harry, what are you dreaming about?" Tonks asked.

"It's too hard to explain," Harry returned. A knock on the door saved him from trying to.

"Everything all right?" Candide's uncertain voice came into the room.

Harry insisted it was. Candide hesitated in the doorway adjusting her dressing gown. "Well, it is almost six," she said. "I'm going to ask Winky for breakfast if you want to join me. Maybe if I get an early start, I can get home early."

Downstairs, at a bleary-eyed breakfast, Candide had turned business-like. She said to Harry, "I'm owling Severus today, to tell him you're having nightmares. What are you having nightmares about?"

"He won't say," Tonks filled in while Harry pondered an answer.

Defensive and annoyed now, Harry said, "They're just bad dreams. There's nothing to say."

After Candide departed, Harry said to Tonks, "I need some time to myself for once. Can I meet back up with you at your place in an hour or so?"

Tonks made a face but said, "Yeah. I could stand to clean my flat anyway."

Harry dressed quickly and while still standing in front of his wardrobe, he focussed on a good mental image of the Department of Mysteries. This time the Dark Plane sat in silence. No creatures approached this time because he had no emotion beyond determination.

The Department of Mysteries slid quietly into view. Harry looked around what his adult eyes identified as a workroom. Shelves and work areas alternated along one wall. Harry had a sense of being followed as he took a few steps. He spun, wand ready in the low light, to discover the tank full of tentacled brains. A tentacle rose, dripping, out of the glassy surface. Harry stepped back instinctively and had to turn fast again when he encountered a wheeled chair that creaked when he touched it.

With a huff at himself, Harry lowered his wand. Clearly, he was too jumpy. His personal history with this place aside, it was just another Ministry department. With calmer purpose, Harry walked around and studied the room, stopping when he spotted something familiar among the densely-packed storage shelves. Just sticking out of its felt casing was the half silver cane Harry had picked up at Merton's house. The familiarity of it among the mysterious and sometimes cursed clutter made him smile faintly.

On the far side of the room, Harry turned his head quickly, thinking he heard voices, even early on a Saturday. Cocking his head this way and that, he followed the sound beyond the higher shelves to a rear corridor. Harry hovered in the doorway to the work room and listened. Footsteps approached, making Harry duck fully back inside. Teacups rattled.

"Thank you," Cornelius Fudge's voice said. Then after a pause where footsteps retreated: "As I was saying, and I feel like I have to repeat myself too much of late because no one is listening, the enemy is among us and no one cares one whit about that.

Someone grunted. "I've been keeping an eye on things," Moody's voice said. "But I agree with you in general. There are wizards worth monitoring."

Harry's jaw clenched. At the sound of shuffling footsteps he ducked farther out of the doorway, prepared to slip away completely if need be.

Moody growled, "That room's setting my eye all atwitter, as usual. Perhaps we can meet over in my office?"

"No one can get in or out of this place," Fudge insisted.

"You have a lot of trust in the people who work for you," Moody commented lowly, criticizing.

Fudge retorted, "I am an excellent judge of character, Alastor. I don't keep people around me who are not absolutely loyal to me."

"No wonder he doesn't like me," Harry muttered under his breath.

"There are problems inside the Ministry," Moody said. "I have my suspicions about that fire that injured Felton, but I can't put my hands on sufficient evidence. I need a little more time. He is going to make a mistake one of these days that I can't overlook for the sake of his family history, and when he does I'll be right there to haul him into prison."

"If you are on about Potter, I have more pressing things to worry about. You said yourself, you talked him in to behaving himself."

Harry scrunched his face up to hear better.

" . . . I don't have time for these new investigations. Get someone else," Moody said.

"I've asked for more help. But for now you'll have to manage. I offered to assign you an assistant and not only did you flatly refuse you were inexcusably insulting about it." Objects were slid around inside the office. "This is what we're up against. A completely devilish infiltration. Look at this history text Hogwarts is using," Fudge said. "Published in Slovakia. What are we going to do next? Take Potions advice from the Spanish?"

Another grunt from Moody. "I think you and I have a different idea about what the enemy might be doing," he said tiredly.

"But it is all the same," Fudge said. The sound of chairs and books shifting around echoed in the still corridor. "All this foreign influence. Next thing you know magic carpets will be legal again. Then after that foreigners will be moving into England ON them. And try to tell that to the Wizengamot, not to mention Amelia. They just refuse to see it, or Merlin forbid, welcome it. Thank Merlin you are here to help, Alastor, that you understand."

"I'll be keeping an eye on the things that really matter; let's just leave it at that."

Harry set his teeth again and slipped out of the room and back to his own bedroom so that he could Apparate from there, without suspicion, directly to Tonk's flat.

Tonks was drinking tea at the small table, hair wet and scented from a shower. She looked up at him. "How are you doing, Harry?" she asked as if they had not just been together most of the night.

Harry shrugged but since she sounded worried, he sat down beside her and said, "Everything's fine aside from a few bad dreams."

"If you want a distraction, you can shadow me on duty today."

Harry would not be bothered by that at all. "I'd like that."

Tonks sipped her tea. "You may be useful today. I have stake-out and it is usually boring as heck."

- 888 -

Hogwarts lay in a cloud-bank that roiled by between the hills, filling the gaps and pooling in the valleys. A persistent drizzle stained the walls and towers a gloomy slate grey. Students gathered on the soaked pitch for Ravenclaw Quidditch team selection trials. The stands surrounding the pitch faded in and out of view as they cut into the clouds. A few students hunkered in the stands to cheer on their friends, shaded under waterproof cloaks.

At the sound of claws on the tall, mullioned window, Snape raised his head and waved the lamps in the room up. The noise turned out to be his owl, Franklin. Snape removed the small, un-addressed missive from the owl's leg. It contained just three short lines.

Harry is having nightmares.

He will not discuss them with me.

He knows I am sending you this owl.

Snape gave no indication of surprise as he folded the letter into his pocket, only resignation.

- 888 -

McGonagall's meeting with Hermione had turned into a social call of sorts, the way most of them seemed to. McGonagall was just thinking that they would be more likely to stick to the agenda if she had Professor Snape present at these meetings when Snape himself appeared at the door. He stepped into the office, neck angled forward, hands loosely clasped before him in the shadows of his wide sleeves.

"I need to be absent this evening, possibly until tomorrow."

Treating the announcement as routine, McGonagall said, "Of course, Severus."

Hermione treated it otherwise. "What's the matter with Harry?" she sat straight to ask.

Snape ignored the outburst beyond a small flick of his eyelids. "I have already informed Remus."

McGonagall nodded. Hermione rose to her feet. "Is Harry all right?" she demanded.

Snape glared at her rather than reply, not in the mood to cater to her nosy penchant. "What makes you think this has anything to do with Harry?" he asked with a touch of sarcasm.

"Oh," Hermione uttered and backed up. "Oh, well, I hope Candide is well, then." She twisted her face and said, "But it's Harry, isn't it?"

Snape rolled his eyes. "You may owl him and ask him about his nightmares yourself, Ms. Granger," he said impatiently.

Hermione rolled her eyes as well. "Nightmares?" She dropped back into her chair. "Harry has always had nightmares," she said dismissively. "But I'll owl him." She made just such a note on the top of the parchment before her, then raised her head as though a meeting would continue as before. With a glance at the two of them standing silent, she collected her papers together and departed with one glance back and her papers barely gathered together in her arms.

"Everything all right, Severus?" McGonagall asked, dropping the professional tone.

For a moment he teetered on the verge of simply departing with a grumble. Instead, he found the need to talk. "This is extraordinarily difficult, this finding the right balance between giving someone space to make mistakes and guiding them too closely."

"You are usually quite good at it. I would not want that role as Head of Slytherin House. It was hard enough with Gryffindor."

"This is different," he said. He tossed his head and paced once. "Or perhaps I am different. I do not know."

"I suspect the latter," she said soberly, but then gave a small smile.

Snape shook his stringy hair forward. "I fear if I try to rein him in, I will lose all influence over him, and I cannot risk that."

"I think you underestimate his feelings for you, Severus. Your low regard for the softer emotions makes you underestimate your position."

Snape considered that. He made a laughing scoff. "This is hardest thing I have ever done, this letting him make his own way with his growing powers when the stakes are so high. My influence is already slipping precariously."

McGonagall steepled her fingers, pressed them to her lips and them propped them before her on the broad desk. "Severus, if I may be so bold . . . I believe you are too accustomed to managing from a servile position. Harry is not Voldemort. Your roles are the reverse of how you are wont to view them."

"Ah, Minerva, you have come so far," the portrait of Dumbledore said proudly.

"You stay out of this," Snape said.

The portrait chuckled. Snape sighed. "I do not know when I will return," he admitted to the current headmistress.

McGonagall shifted things around on her desk, implying she wished to move onto other things. "Your presence here is appreciated, Severus, but not required." She stopped to stare him down fully. "Take as long as you need."

- 888 -

As Tonks had warned, the day was rather boring. She and Harry sat in the Leaky Cauldron for half the day, in a position where Tonks could watch the door, and patrolled various wizard business areas around the country for the rest of the day. By evening, Harry's feet hurt, but he hoped the walking and brisk air would help him sleep soundly.

Tonks followed Harry home to wait for his next assigned guard. They had not even settled at the table before Snape swept into the dining room from elsewhere in the house.

"I will take care of the guard duties for the night, Ms. Tonks," he said dismissively with a tiny hand gesture towards the hearth.

Tonks put her hands on her hips. "Do you have the next codeword?"

"No," Snape returned.

"Call Winky in here, so she can vouch for you, then I'll get out of your way."

When that was settled and Tonks had left, Snape re-emerged from the shadows beside the hearth and half-circled Harry. "What is in your dreams?" he asked while staring at a spot on the far wall rather than at Harry. He had a whiff of Hogwarts floating around him, which normally Harry would have found reassuring, but given his dreams, he did not.

"They are just some odd nightmares," Harry said, not wanting to discuss it. "They don't mean anything."

Snape gave his fingertips some attention before saying. "You have studies, do you not?"


"Why don't you go do them." It was not a question; it was an order.

Harry slipped by him into the main hall. With his hand on the bannister, he turned, feeling vaguely resentful. "You know, you should be keeping a better eye on Candide," he criticized. "She's working far too hard."

Snape snapped his finger in the direction of the balcony. "Your studies," he repeated, trailing out the "s" at the end.

Harry ducked his head and went upstairs to fetch his books. But when he arrived there he sat on the edge of his bed and sorted them instead, reviewing things he already knew. Flipping through one of the regulations pamphlets made him appreciate how much better he remembered things now than he used to. He was probably as sharp as Hermione was when he first met her and felt such awe in her ability to pack information into her brain.

Harry tried to come up with the will to start the next chapter in a book on dark wizard psychology, normally a welcome topic, but this author rendered it down into long latin words and boring tables of numbers. A soft knuckle-rap sounded on the doorframe.

"I'm studying," Harry insisted.

"I can see that," Snape said gently. "Is there anything you wish to talk about?"

Harry stared at the column of numbers before him showing the percent of magical British folk involved in various kinds of dark wizardry and the frequency with which they engaged in it. Most only tried it once, or so it appeared. He thought about Belinda, hoping whatever she had been involved in, she was out of now. He thought about Elizabeth and wished his vault still seemed limitless so he could help her more. He thought about Tonks, who was more than willing to give him a little space . . . he just needed to ask for it.

Harry shook his head.

A voice came from farther down the balcony. "Severus, if I'd known you were home, I'd have left earlier. The client insisted on ordering dinner in for us all." She stepped into view and gave Snape a hug.

Harry turned the page where the next chapter, Dark Magic Recidivism, began.

"Long day. I'm turning in," Candide said through a yawn and made her good nights.

When they were alone, Harry asked, "Do you have any potion I could use? The ingredients have thinned out here I noticed the other night."

"If your dreams are so minor, then you do not require any potion," Snape stated slowly. He sounded calculating.

Harry stared at him now, rather than dividing his attention with his book. He tried to gauge him and failed at it. His dreams and his vaguely tired mind were in the way of deciding how to take that last statement, so he gave up on doing so. "I'm studying," he insisted, and bent back to his book until the doorway emptied of its visitor.

Author Notes:

I am, of course, continuing to write. Tomorrow I'm leaving for the south of India for a month. I'm not sure what kind of impact that is going to have on my output. Could go either way... I'll keep updating the progress bars on my homepage, accessible from the author info link on this site. Next chapter the fun stuff begins again!

Next: Chapter 15

Snape looked normal enough. Harry recognized the robes he was wearing with their minimalist decorative stitching on the sleeve and down the back. Snape folded the letter and took the seat across from Harry, the one Candide had just vacated. Harry felt cold and empty and unable to cope with the notion that was taking hold of him.

He stared at Snape while his guardian tucked the letter away in his pocket and, finally noting Harry's attention, stared back. Harry consciously breathed in, glanced around the room, then back at Snape, who now had the slightest rise to one brow.

"What if I'm not in the right place?" Harry asked because it was ready to burst out of him, not because it was the wisest thing to say at that moment.

Chapter 15: What May Dreams
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Chapter 15 — What May Dreams

"You weren't a little brusque with Harry, were you?" Candide asked when Snape arrived in the room and had closed the door.

"If he indicates he wants help, I will provide it. I fear he will shut me out if I force it upon him."

"I don't know about that," Candide countered, but she declined to back it up with more argument. "You know; I make more than you anyhow. You could just stay home and keep an eye on him all the time."

"I . . ." He stopped and regrouped. "You are going to want to stay home with the child for the first year at least, aren't you?"

"A year?" she sounded shocked by the notion. "Well, a while, yes. I haven't thought about how long." They both fell silently into their own thoughts. "But you could be home to be his guard all the time, then."

"I did not imagine they would not have found the culprit by now. Which reminds me that I wished to owl Arthur to ask about the progress on the investigation." He pulled a small sheet of parchment and a quill from the night stand and jotted down his question, bluntly, feeling no need for pleasantries. Franklin responded to a faint whistle from down in the drawing room, where his perch had been moved, and the message was soon off.

Snape returned to sitting on the edge of the bed and made no move to prepare for sleep.

"Severus?" Candide prompted upon noticing Snape still in his lecture robes.

"You have no sense of what his nightmares entail?" he asked.

"No. And his usual guard, Hornisham, said they woke him several times a night. I wouldn't expect him to talk to me or her about it. But he wouldn't open up to Tonks either."

"She would be the last person he would tell. He has a touch of hero worship for her."

Candide sat up, keeping the covers wrapped around her in the cooling air. "Harry has what?" she asked with a laugh.

"It has faded somewhat, but I think it is still there."

Candide said, "Well, that would explain a few things. They aren't quite right for each other, but Harry is persistent, even in the face of problems he cannot solve."

"That particular trait comes from a life of fighting evil far greater than himself."

When Snape still failed to move after many more minutes, Candide asked, "What are you thinking about?"

At her question Snape leaned over to look for something in the bedside table drawer. "Something Minerva said." He found what he was looking for, the baby monitor, and stood while tossing it once lightly in the air and catching it. "Perhaps I will put her wisdom to the test."

Harry sat propped up with his pillows, reading from his lap when Snape knocked and entered. He strode over and placed the glass half dome down on the night stand and held his hand on it for longer than necessary. Harry watched this, but turned back to his book without objecting. Snape even hesitated longer beside the bed to hear any complaints, noticing during that time that Harry had not only outgrown his pyjamas but that they had been expanded at least twice with a spell to make them fit. He could tell this because the neat stripes were strangely akilter at the shoulders and around the neck. They were just one of many things Harry had outgrown. He could easily be on his own, Snape considered, not for the first time. The thought chilled Snape; it would be impossible to keep a proper eye on him then.

"Well, good night," Snape intoned. "If you do need to talk, do not hesitate to wake me." This was a command.

Harry raised his head slightly. "I wouldn't want to disturb Candide."

"She'll understand."

Harry shrugged. "All right," he conceded stiffly.

Harry turned down the lamp wick soon after he was left alone, and he was glad to be alone for once. He flipped to his other side, trying not to worry about the dreams that may or may not come. The glass dome glowed and flickered faintly, watching and waiting.

Harry rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. The headlamps of a passing car wavered overhead. He did not want to sleep; he wanted to talk. He wanted to know where these odd dreams were coming from. Harry exhaled loudly; maybe the dreams would leave him alone tonight.

Harry was back in the dungeon, some dungeon; it wasn't one he recognized. His body was shutting down from pain through his midsection that kept him from breathing properly. Someone moved on the far side of the room. Harry did not want to look up and find out who it was. Footsteps approached and a hand grabbed hold of his hair. Forced to see his tormentor, Harry met the cold, bright gaze of Lucius Malfoy.

"I put you away," Harry said, confused.

The man laughed. "I don't feel very put away, Mr. Potter. It is, in fact, you who are incarcerated at this moment."

Harry glanced around. The very stones of the place held the stagnant aroma of desperation. "Where is this?"

"Must we go over that again?" Malfoy huffed. "You are in my personal dungeon. Awaiting my master, who will be most pleased to see you, I'm sure." He began to pace and missed Harry rubbing at his scar, which was silent. "I wish to move up in the organization," Malfoy went on, happy to talk about himself. "And I can do it by handing over you. It would be a pleasure to do so even absent reward."

"You're not handing me over to anyone," Harry said.

"You are very tiresome, Mr. Potter," Malfoy complained and raised his wand.

Harry slipped away and after struggling to stand and fend off the creatures attracted to the blood on his clothing, found the strength to slip home again.

Harry came to awareness on a gritty, warped and split floor. He raised his head and took in the half-destroyed main hall of the house. He had missed; he was not home. With substantial effort against unknown injury to his gut, Harry pushed himself to his knees and sat panting in the gloom to think desperately of what to do next. A sound interrupted Harry's panicked thoughts. He turned and found a small glowing thing approaching along the floor. Harry tried to stand, but could not manage it; he was too spent. The approaching figure hesitated and looked up at him with broad, transparent eyes. It was the ghost of small child, perhaps one year old, and it gurgled at him and put up a hand before putting it back down and crawling faster toward him an inch above the floor, leaving the dust undisturbed.

A hand contacted Harry's shoulder, making him jerk and roll to face whatever it was. He snapped awake and, after finding his bedside lamp glaring in his eyes, attempted to roll back on his front and pull his pillow thoroughly over his head. But the light duvet was too tangled around him to even get both arms free. A figure rose up and bent over him and, with strong hands, tugged on the covers binding him. Harry, vexed at treatment better suited to someone much younger, nevertheless lay still until he was freed, because struggling was only drawing the process out longer. He rolled away while the duvet was carefully straightened over him and punched his pillow a few times for good measure.

The now cocooning bedcovers eased Harry's energized nerves. He breathed in and out through the familiar scent of his pillow.

"Harry," the expected voice finally came.

Harry grunted a reply but did not move. The bed shifted, indicating that Snape had stood. Harry did not imagine he would give up that easily and, indeed, Snape had not. Kali's cage twanged open and Harry felt her escaping those confines, only to be wrapped up more thoroughly in Snape's hands.

Snape returned to sitting on the edge of the bed with Harry's pet pressed into the crook of his shoulder. The animal had not been sleeping any better than her master, so she happily burrowed into the warmth. Snape ran his knuckles over her furred back and her wings went slack. Harry fell slack too, more deeply into his pillow, pressed there by the connection with his pet.

"What are you dreaming?" came after many quiet minutes.

"I don't want to talk about it."

Snape continued stroking the Chimrian's fur. "I insist," he said. When Harry did not reply, he said, "What was in the dream that you were having just now?"

Harry sighed and rolled over to sit up. He really did not wish to discuss that one. If the child were in this house, then it would have been Snape's child, killed about the age Harry himself had been attacked by Voldemort the first time.

"I was dreaming that I was in the wrong place. And I couldn't escape. Well, I could escape, but only to a place worse than the last. I couldn't find my way home." Harry hoped that answer satisfied his guardian.

Snape stated, "You need not worry about getting lost if you do not leave."

Harry thought over his dreams of the last few nights. "Do you think it's possible I'm seeing other Planes for real in my nightmares?"

"I doubt it."

Harry frowned and rubbed his hands over his scalp. His eyes were sore and it was late, too late to be awake let alone debating such things. "Where are these bad nightmares coming from, then?" he asked.

"Your subconscious, presumably." Snape adjusted Kali down into the crook of his elbow, and folded her wings back. The creature chirped in minor protest but stayed put. "Since you refuse to tell me the contents of them I can not help you with explaining their meaning."

"They seem like other places. Real places," Harry said.

"And they may very well be," Snape said. At Harry's confused expression, Snape explained, "Since every possibility you could imagine could indeed have a Plane of its own, there is no distinction between your imagining something and its existence."

Harry stared at him as he took that in. The lamp flame cast a chiseling light on Snape's features. Snape gave him a little time, then added, "I do not think the other Planes are the germination of your dreams."

"How do you know?"

"I don't know. It is simply more power than I can imagine you having."

Harry snorted faintly. "I don't have that much power. One of my dreams is of Rodgers relentlessly putting me on the floor like he does during training every day, nearly, in the furtherance of building up our spell capacity."

Kali tried to climb out of Snape's grasp so he handed her over to Harry, who let her make her way to his shoulder where she stretched and groomed her scarred wings.

"There is more than one kind of power," Snape pointed out. "How well one does recreating the preponderance of prescribed spells that untold witches and wizards have invented over these last hundreds of years is only one kind, and it is the least interesting kind. Spells for object repair, Muggle befuddlement, and even self-stirring cauldrons aside, the vast majority of Ministry-approved spells are pointless as well as outdated. And any magical person with a wand can do them provided they are coached long enough. That is precisely what Hogwarts was set up to accomplish—rigid standardization of magic. We make a lot of noise about promoting and nurturing magic, but in reality it is enforced mediocrity."

"But it makes magical people safe-" Harry began.

"Yes. It does that, by providing a structured outlet for magical power that may, if given time left to its own devices, create a more interesting one of its own. How many people do you know who travel in and out of the underworld?" He answered his own question, as if to drive the point home. "Yourself, one shaman that we know of . . ."

"Vampires can," Harry said.

"Yes. Because they wield old magic . . . raw, pre-historic magic. Raw energy transformed and molded at will. The fabric of reality itself parted and twisted to your wishes. That is what has changed your eyes. I suspect most handed that power would be destroyed by it. You channeled powerful raw magic as an infant and it was that occasion I believe which has made you an able vessel for it." He had been leaning forward to urge his point across, but now clasped his hands and rocked back. "This formulaic magic the rest of us do is dwarfed by what you are capable of if you work out how to put it to functional use." His gaze shifted to the unlit lamp on the near side of the bed. "You slip between possibilities of fate the way others enter a vault at Gringotts. I watched you carve the very magic out of someone. What greater powers do you want?"

"Lockhart was already damaged. His magic was loose," Harry said, trying to excuse what he had done.

"But you could do it again," Snape stated as an invitation that forced a denial or confirmation.

Harry thought that over. Kali circled his neck, pricking him. He plucked her down to the bedcovers without a glance and held her there. "Probably," he said because he couldn't imagine what might stop him from succeeding.

"There is no greater power in the realm of magic, in my opinion. Death is easy to bring about and requires no magic. But rendering someone unmagical is something else entirely."

"Rodgers can put me on the floor at will," Harry complained.

"For now, that is. And you can negate his curses later in a manner only the most accomplished Healer can."

"I suppose," Harry said, still doubtful.

Snape watched him for a minute as he wrangled his pet, who was keen on taking flight back to her cage now. As if pre-judging Harry's ongoing thoughts, he said, "Voldemort was very good at maximizing the spells he found, at pushing the edge of what a spell could do—generally the dark edge of it. But he needed the spell to start with and was constantly hunting for forgotten ones. You, on the other hand, do not even need an existing spell as germination. You have an instinct for detecting and shaping the raw energies of magic that is extremely rare, and it classifies you with sorcerers. Your trainer, in a fight with no rules, would stand no chance against you."

"I wouldn't do that to him, though, like I did to Voldemort."

"It does not matter."

"Yes, it does," Harry argued. "I'm an Auror; I'm supposed to fight fair."

"Then work out a way to use your instinctive power to do that. Can your trainer block a Forbidden Curse?"

"No, of course not."

Snape tilted his head with an expression of see?

"You're saying I can work out more ways of using . . . non-formulaic magic against formulaic magic."

"I don't see any reason why you cannot. Working without a guide, it may take some careful experimentation to figure out how. I emphasize careful."

"Why are you telling me this?" Harry asked. "Usually you want me to limit what I'm attempting."

More resigned, Snape said, "I do not know the source of your nightmares and the only one you would relate involved what I can only interpret as a fear of being bested. Are the others like that?"

Harry thought about his answer before shaking his head. "A bit, but not exactly."

"What do they involve, would you say?"

"Er, getting myself into trouble with these raw powers."

Snape stood and shook his dressing gown straight. "I am not troubled by your fearing that," he said adamantly. He slipped his hands into his pockets. "Something more you wish to discuss?"

Harry's eyes felt like lead. "No. Thanks though."

Snape departed and Harry released his pet to fly back to her cage, but as soon as she was free, she clambered back up his chest. He clutched her close so she would not claw him when he moved suddenly, and fell back onto his pillow.

Harry slept eventually and more dreams flowed by, murky and anxious, and in the morning, his body resisted waking up and he only went down to breakfast because he was ordered to.

"You can retire early, or nap later even, but come down now," Snape said from the doorway.

Harry suppressed a flush of embarrassment at Candide's sympathetic smile when he arrived at the table. He quickly picked up the Sunday Prophet and flipped it open as a barricade.

An article caught his eye about the Goblins threatening exactly what he had overheard Tonks mention: that increased security may be necessary and everyone should be prepared to be subjected to it next time they wish to visit their vault. The bank security staff may institute a gauntlet of anti-illusory spells and forced potion antidote consumption should a customer be deemed to be behaving suspiciously or has set off the nose of the bank's newly trained bloodhound rats. The new procedures are expected to result in an additional two hour delay in servicing vault access requests.

The interviewed Goblin stated that these procedures were necessary to sort out those being cheated by others from those seeking to cheat the bank directly. The article went on to say that lines at the bank were expected to be extremely long Monday morning as witches and wizards attempted to set themselves up ahead of any increased inconveniences.

The next article, buried under a column of adverts showing the latest mufflers and muffs for winter, also peaked Harry's interest. It read simply: Ministry Totem and Potion Technician G. Felton is still recovering in hospital from injuries sustained in an unspecified magical accident at his home. The Minister for Magic today stated that the Crack Magical Reversal Squad dispatched was successful in keeping the suspicious nature of the fire secret from the Muggle authorities despite the large amount of damage caused.

Harry's mind harkened back to the wet ground and flashing lights of the scene that night, feeling a small rush at knowing he was finally getting to be part of what transpired in the official magical world. He put the paper down and Snape asked, "How was your sleep the remainder of the night?"

Harry shrugged. In his peripheral vision he could see the two of them sharing a meaningful look and found himself chafing under its implication. He ate breakfast quickly and excused himself to do his readings.

The morning dragged by slowly. Harry continually thought of places he would rather be, like visiting his friends, but he would need to arrange a guard to follow him and at the moment, he could pretend he did not have a guard at all.

He sent Hedwig off to Elizabeth with a letter and told her that she could use his owl for the day if she needed to send some post. Harry wished he could do more; his friend's situation irked him whenever his mind wandered over to thoughts of it. If he only had more gold.

Harry's thoughts wandered off from the magical weather book open before him and back in time to when Lord Freelander offered to cover any expenses Harry may incur in his apprenticeship. If Harry had taken Freelander up as a patron, he would perhaps have enough money now to help out Elizabeth, at least until she could arrange for loans. He supposed that he could still go to Freelander now and ask, as hard as that would be on his pride.

Harry put his book down and dug into his trunk for some of his good stationery. But as he leaned over to write out a letter in the neatest hand possible, he decided to ask simply for a chance to speak to him about some unspecified assistance, with the notion that once he was standing before the wealthy wizard, the man would have a more difficult time saying no.

Harry had to make an envelope out of another sheet of stationery because there were none nice enough that matched. He then borrowed Candide's company owl, with the stipulation that it follow her to the office because she was to spend the afternoon there and would need him.

Harry took the weather book downstairs and out to the back garden. He had never really thought about different shapes and altitudes of clouds before and what that might mean regarding what the cloud would do. Outside, the sky was a ubiquitous grey and clouds did not so much have shape as represent a layer looming over the world. Harry paged through the illustrations, but did not see any resemblance to what he saw above him now. The breeze fluttered the page corners as he flipped them. The first diagram was the most interesting, it showed an great anvil shape with angled columns of lightning and hail ejecting from it. The sky did not contain anything this threatening, or if it did, it was hidden.

Sirius' bike leaned forlornly against the garden wall under a tarpaulin. Harry tucked the book away under his arm and went over to clear the newly grown ivy off it, thinking that he did not get out nearly often enough on it. Pale green vines had grown through the spokes of the wheels. Harry tugged them free, noticing for the first time an emblem on the wheel hub. It was inlaid glass in the shape of a goldfinch in flight and even on such a cloudy day it caught the light and glittered. Harry tugged the tarpaulin back over, secured it, and went back inside.

Harry opened his book again at the dining room table in hopes of lunch, which arrived when Snape and Candide did. Despite his continuing low-level embarrassment, Harry savored the feel of all three of them together.

Candide repeatedly checked the clock before topping her plate up from the heaping plates provided. She and Snape debated minor household issues in a casual manner, very unlike the Dursleys. Harry picked his book back out of his pocket and flipped it open, partly to demonstrate that he really did spend all his time reading.

The book fell open to the page with the sky-anvil. According to the text, the Goblin wars were the primary impetus for the development of weather curses involving hail and tornados. Trouble was, directing the storm at the enemy was not a certainty and surrounding areas or even one's own side were often the victim. Harry rubbed his eyes and yawned, wishing he had slept better. He wondered about the goldfinch emblem and whether it was the symbol of the bike's maker. Harry also wondered that he had never noticed it before.

Candide stood hurriedly before lunch was finished, Accioed her cloak from the entryway, and gathered her things from beside the hearth.

"I'll remain another night," Snape said in reply to a question from her, making Harry glance up again.

Candide smiled at this news and insisted she would only be absent a few hours, at most.

Harry put the book aside and stared at his lunch, at the chunks of bread soaking into the dark gravy. It was the oddest thing, Winky had never served yesterday's joint up quite like this before. It was such a small thing, but it loomed large in his sleepy brain.

Snape moved to the window to collect post from an owl, blocking the grey light for a moment before he reclosed the sash and moved away again. With a slash of a short knife from the mantel, he opened the envelope, then paced slowly to read it. Harry watched him do this with a dull, but building sense of unease. Snape stopped before the mantel and rested his letter-laden hand upon it and continued to read with his other hand propped on his hip.

Snape looked normal enough. Harry recognized the robes he was wearing with their minimalist decorative stitching on the sleeve and down the back. Snape folded the letter and took the seat across from Harry, the one Candide had just vacated. Harry felt cold and empty and unable to cope with the notion that was taking hold of him.

He stared at Snape while his guardian tucked the letter away in his pocket and, finally noting Harry's attention, stared back. Harry consciously breathed in, glanced around the room, then back at Snape, who now had the slightest rise to one brow.

"What if I'm not in the right place?" Harry asked because it was ready to burst out of him, not because it was the wisest thing to say at that moment.

"You are in the right place," Snape said with a quiet confidence that indicated he was ready and waiting to say it.

Harry opened his mouth but required a second attempt to form his thoughts before saying, "You've already thought of this."

Snape dropped his gaze and sat back, eyes hooded. "Yes."

"Why didn't you say anything?" Harry demanded, quickly getting upset. He propped his hands on the table, as though ready to launch himself somewhere.

"And distress you in this manner? Whatever for?"

Harry pulled his hands back. "I . . ." He swallowed hard.

Snape said, "I do truly believe you are in the right place."

"Of course you would think that," Harry said without really thinking it through.

"Why would I think that?" Snape challenged.

"Well . . ." But Harry did not have a good reason; it was just gut instinct made him say that. Many little things in the last week now looked off in retrospect. His heart rate sped up as his mind latched onto each in turn.

Snape sat back more comfortably, in contrast to Harry's elevating anxiety, and said, "Do you want to know why I think you are in the right place?"

"Yes, please," Harry said, desperately wanting to be certain when he was so much the opposite that he felt almost paralyzed.

"For starters, I don't believe there can be too many of you with this skill. Yes, there are other Harry Potters, an infinite number of them in fact, but how many of them can do as you do, that is, jump between Planes?"

Harry had not considered that. "I . . . I don't know," he said, soothed simply by Snape's attentive effort at explaining.

"I expect not many," Snape answered his own question. "A handful perhaps at most. As well, how many would just happened to have left and returned home at exactly the same time as you did?"

"Oh," Harry said, starting to understand. "You're saying . . . that if I am in the wrong place that another Harry had to have left this place and gone to the wrong place, my place and not returned, so that I've taken his place?" Even to Harry that sounded quite the string of long odds.

"That is precisely what I am saying," Snape intoned, sounding pleased. He waited patiently while Harry thought that over. A minute later he said, "I have another . . . point to make in this regard."

Harry met his gaze and found nothing strange in it, just Snape, as he understood and expected him to be. "What's that?" Harry asked.

"Before being poisoned and accidentally meeting with Headmaster Voldemort, you were not worried that you were in the wrong place, correct? You felt that you were at home?"

"Well, yes, of course," Harry said, uncertain where this was leading.

"But you had left and returned from another Plane once previous to that escapade."

Harry's flesh solidified on his arms in a wave of nervous energy and he held his breath. "That's right. I did," he agreed, remembering his visit to Weaver's End.

Snape hesitated, but finally said, "I did not intend to alarm you with that revelation. I just wished you to recognize that you returned home safely on that occasion as well."

Harry gave that due consideration. He thought about all the things he had done after that in complete ignorance of the possibility that he could be in the wrong world.

"Do you think you returned to the wrong place that time, as well as this most recent time?" Snape asked, with just the faintest, barest whiff of snide.

"No," Harry managed, still thinking things over. "I hadn't thought of it at all. Nothing strange happened to make me wonder. There's been some strange stuff since . . ."

"If you look for anomalies you are guaranteed to find them. But what caused you to think of it this time?"

Harry gestured at his plate. "The joint was reheated."

"Winky is doing that for Candide. Warm food is more healthful," Snape stated.

Harry stared at the meat juice pooling on his plate, solidifying at the edges into white fat. "Oh." A smile flickered over Snape's lips, prompting Harry to demand, "You think that's funny?"

"I am not by any means amused by your distress. I find it amusing that such a grand philosophical uncertainty about one's very existence could be triggered by a warm plate of food." He uncrossed his arms and sat forward slightly. "I will happily sit here as long as necessary to convince you of my certainty."

Harry bit his lip and stared out at the main hall. "You realized I may be the wrong Harry and you didn't do anything?" he demanded.

"I realized the possibility and quickly dismissed it. I was certain that I had the right one back. That is all."

"And you didn't say anything," Harry repeated more forcefully.

"No," Snape agreed.

Harry frowned at the room in general. "Anything else you aren't telling me?" Harry asked sharply.

Snape matched Harry's challenging glare. "Several things. In good time I will, perhaps, tell you what they are."

"What?" Harry asked a little smartly. "When I am old enough to hear them?"

"Age has little to do with it."

"You're reminding me of Dumbledore," Harry criticized, crossing his arms and sitting back. But he could not hold onto his annoyance; the realization that Snape had left him here, alone with his pregnant wife, kept seeping in and melting his peevishness. Snape absolutely would not have done that if he harbored any doubts.

"What if I am not in the right place, though?" Harry quietly asked again. "What if?"

"If you cannot tell the difference, does it matter?"

"Of course it matters," Harry retorted. "I want to be home."

"If you cannot tell the difference, it IS home."

Harry rocked forward and gestured with his arms. "But, what if something is different that I just don't happen to know about?"

Snape smirked lightly. "You and Schrödinger," he quipped.

Harry huffed and dropped his head. He pushed his now cold plate an inch forward and it sparkled away.

"I wish you to feel secure with where you are," Snape said. "And I reiterate: if you do not wish to wonder if you have returned home, do not leave again."

"I hadn't planned on leaving again. I didn't plan on leaving in the first place."

Harry stubbornly argued further, but eventually grudgingly accepted that he could do nothing that evening about his situation, even if he did decide that things were askew. If he took off in search of a more rightful place, he could easily end up in far less desirable quarters; that he was certain of.

Harry sat in the library, looking through one of the heavier law books for past rulings on weather manipulation. Partly he was curious if he went out and tried some of those spells, would he get into trouble for it. He thought it better to research it himself rather than ask their trainer directly. When Snape came to the door, Harry had lost himself in this task and found it wearisome to return to his earlier anxious state. It was far easier to accept that this was home unless he encountered something truly, hopelessly amiss.

"How are you doing?" Snape gently asked.

"Fine. I wish you hadn't asked."

"Not like me to do so?" Snape airily returned.

"Something like that."

Lips slightly curled, but with a far more Slytherin smile in his eyes, Snape sat on the leather divan. "I was going to ask if there was anything I could do, but I see now that it would be best to be miserable to you so that you feel better."

Funny thing was, every time Snape spoke so calmly about the possibility that he may be in the wrong place, it did make Harry feel better. Harry said, "So, you think most of the other Planes are worse ones? Why?"

"Law of averages. You believe things worked out well for you, do you not?"

"I'm not dead, true," Harry agreed, thinking of his last trip to another Plane where he had not even survived his first full year at Hogwarts.

Snape considered him in depth before saying, "That is your primary criteria for whether your life is working out for you?"

Harry shrugged faintly, then laughed lightly. "This is my life, what could I have changed about it?" He frowned and amended, "I mean, there were some mistakes I could have avoided . . ."

"It is not just your actions that would invoke change," Snape said, intent on interrupting. "It is everyone else's coupled with random chance falling a different way. Cascading differences. Interacting cascades of differences, even."

"So, are you saying that because this place is so close to what I expect, that is has to be the right place?"

Snape shook his head. "I am tempted to lie and say "yes," but I won't. There are as likely to be Planes with just a single incidental difference from what you are expecting as there are to be Planes where nothing is the same, where you and I and even Hogwarts do not even exist."

Harry scratched his head and thought aloud: "I wouldn't be able to get to those places, because I wouldn't have anything to focus on."

Snape clapped his hands down on the divan and stood up. "I do not want to urge you to explore, so I am going to leave that point un-addressed." He stood with his hair hanging forward, looking at Harry. "Is there anything I can do for you?"

Harry put aside the book he had out. "Maybe we can work on a few spells. I want to try what you said."

Snape's hair fell farther forward as he nodded.

Harry quickly hovered the main hall furniture to the side and took up a position before the front wall, as far from the windows as possible. He held his wand out, but then lowered it. "Can you cast a spell with very little force on it?" he asked his guardian as he took up an opposing position as though to duel.

Snape raised his wand and Harry held his down. "If you are going to leave yourself undefended, then that is all I can do," Snape said. He cast a heat charm at Harry.

Harry felt the spell brush him like a passing sunbeam, then fade. The counter would be so easy through the wand, but how else could he possibly negate it? "How should I do this?" he asked.

"I do not know," Snape said, "How do you block Forbidden Curses?"

"That's easy," Harry said, not noticing Snape's amused reaction to his flippancy. "Those come from the Dark Plane. They open a crack into the underworld. That I can control. I can shut it, even from a distance like this. But a charm, where does that come from?"

"Where does any magic come from?" Snape rhetorically asked.

"Charms don't feel like anything," Harry went on. "Curses I can feel but I can't do anything about the ones that aren't truly dark magic. At least I don't know how."

Snape aimed his wand again. "We'll work with curses then for the moment." He cast a very weak Blasting Curse at Harry, so weak it merely ruffled his robes.

Harry felt the curse being generated but it came from nowhere in particular, just ballooned into being. He felt it ripple around him, both as a force of movement and as a force of magic but the two were hard to separate. "Can you cast something that doesn't flow like that one, so I can sort out what is the magic and what is the result of it?"

Snape angled his head in a kind of nod. "A Ice Spear Curse, perhaps?"

Harry could feel this one two ways more clearly, but that did not help him sort out what to do about it. He signaled for Snape to recast it several times then held up his hand because he was nearly shivering. "This is like learning Legilimency again," he complained. He rubbed his arms vigorously. "You don't know any heating curses, do you?"

Dryly, Snape replied, "There is a sunburn curse, but it will damage your eyes if used repeatedly."

"How about some other one then."

Alternating various weak spells, they worked at it for an hour or so, until Harry was bored with trying. "My readings are starting to sound good again," he said. "I'll try to work out something during drills, while also countering the normal way."

Ginny and Ron came for dinner that evening. They did not expect Snape to still be at home, and Harry had not owled to tell them otherwise. Conversation at the table was a little subdued as a result. Snape himself broke one of the lulls with: "So, Ms. Weasley, still intending to become an Auror?"

"Yes," Ginny replied primly. "I will apply again next year." The way she stated this implied she expected an argument.

"Perhaps you should regularly get together for drills with Harry, in that case," Snape said. "He roped me into it this afternoon." He spoke with an coldly factual edge that led Harry to conclude he was up to something.

Ginny's face brightened. "I'd love to get more practice. My brothers either pull their spells to avoid hurting me, or use some difficult and painful spell I don't know to get me to want to quit."

"Drills are just supposed to be easy, repeated practice," Harry said, "so that you can react on instinct for the basic attacks and counters."

"I'd love to get a chance to work on spells with you."

"Get assigned as my guard in the evenings when Tonks is on duty," Harry said. "Someone has to be here anyway. Point out to your dad that if he ends up with Vespera as a daughter-in-law, he will need an Auror in the family."

"Yeah, good idea. I'll ask dad to do that. I've been trying to work my way through the books your fellow apprentice, Aaron, recommended, but Ron usually insists we do something fun instead." She sounded criticizing, prompting Ron to say, "It's not like you make a fuss when I do that."

"I need someone around the house who is also swotting," Ginny complained moodily.

"I need a guard who is more fun than Hornisham from Control of Magical Creatures," Harry said, thinking having his friends as guards regularly may make this rule more livable since there was no sign of it being lifted in the near future.

After his friends had departed, Harry turned on his guardian. "What was that about?"

Snape, raised an innocent brow. "What?"

"Contriving to have Ginny over for regular spell practice."

Snape sipped his sherry and stated, "I thought you wished to work additionally on your alternative curse counter. A great deal of trial and error will be required to work out a method, assuming you can manage it at all."

Harry set his jaw, but did not accuse him further. He suspected Snape of preferring he be in a relationship with Ginny rather than Tonks. But Snape was playing ignorant and he would not budge from that position once he was in it.

That night, Harry slept without waking from any bad dreams. Snape, doubting the monitor, went to check on him directly, just before dawn, and found him soundly slumbering with the covers undisturbed. A few hours later, Snape prodded Harry awake.

"Huh?" Harry grunted, raising his head out of the delicious depths of his pillow.

"Since you are doing all right, I was thinking of returning to Hogwarts this morning. Breakfast in the Great Hall is in just a quarter hour."

Harry cleared his throat and pushed himself to a sitting position. "Yeah," he muttered, still waking up. "If you need to go back. I'm fine." Indeed, he had slept through the night for the first time in a week. He studied Snape, studying him back. "I mean, it's not like we don't prefer having you around."

"Hm," Snape muttered.

"Look at Candide's reaction when she found you home," Harry pointed out.

Snape straightened. "I've been meaning to talk to her about that."

Harry punched him on the leg. "Severus," he chastised him, despite suspecting him of making a joke. "You should be taking better care of her."

"She insists all is well," Snape said, clearly closing the topic.

"She works far too hard. And it's only getting worse. You need to tell her to cut back."

"I have done so," Snape informed him. "She is rather conscientious about doing her job well, for which I commend her, even as tedious as I would personally find her activities to be."

"As opposed to brewing, which is just about the same level of excitement."

"Accounting forms rarely blow up in your face and burn your house down," Snape drolly pointed out. "And you will note, I am rarely called to brew any longer."

"Maybe that explains your newly sunny disposition."

"You are being sarcastic, I assume," Snape stated. "Are you meaning to imply that I have been exceptionally unsunny?"

"No . . ." Harry rubbed his chin. "I don't know."

Snape huffed. "How many times in your life have you found things to be different than you believed them to be . . . found that you were mistaken about some major object or fact?"

"Loads of times," Harry admitted.

"You will drive yourself mad if you continually assume the worst about ones you encounter from here on out."

Harry decided to let the topic drop. "Are you going to be home next weekend again?"

"If you wish me to be," Snape said.

Harry was torn badly between an instinct for independence and strong liking of the times when they were all home together. It felt childish to insist Snape return so soon. Instead, he said, "Halloween is coming up soon. You'll have to be at school for that because it's always chaos." He then added: "I need to plan a party."

"A small party. Too difficult to guard you at a large one."

Harry clasped his hands together. "That's one nice thing about you being home: I can pretend my life is normal. On that note, who's replacing you?"

"Ms. Tonks is downstairs, waiting."

Parts of Harry, hitherto asleep, woke up with a wash of tingles. Harry, thoughts well Occluded, said merely, "Okay, " with what he was proud to believe was not the slightest hint of what use he intended to put the short time to before heading into the Ministry.

Snape started to leave, but paused to say: "Half of what your trainer has over you is psychological. Cease to let him have that easy advantage and I suspect you will do better against him."

"I don't think it's that. He really is . . ." Harry began.

Snape lifted a finger toward Harry's nose and said, "See. That precisely."

"I'll try."

Harry did try, but not with much visible success. That week during demonstrations and drills opposite his trainer, he felt he was battling himself as well as the spells. Trying to battle the assumption that he would get beat was a distraction from actually trying to beat him. But his trainer became less grudging with his scant praise, so perhaps Harry was progressing, he thought, as he nursed his always sore wand elbow and returned to his seat.

It was mid-week and Harry had another distraction that day; he had an appointment with Lord Freelander and he still had not figured out exactly how to approach the man, what arguments to use, or even what to say. At the end of the day, Aaron was assigned as his guard, which Harry was pleased by because given his bearing he would make a better-than-average impression on Harry's hoped-for patron.

"I need to run an errand this afternoon; if you don't mind," Harry said to his fellow as they were packing up their things.

"Somewhere we can Apparate to, or will this be shanks mare?" Aaron asked in the attitude of a polite butler with a funny accent.

"We can Apparate," Harry assured him, smiling at his fellow's antics.

With Harry handling the traveling, they arrived a moment later at the base of the drive leading to the Freelander estate.

"Ah," Aaron said. "I've been here. Been a long while, though."

"I was here just once, at night for a dinner party; wasn't sure I could find it in the daytime," Harry said, making conversation as they walked between the stone posts and up the gently curving, white gravel path.

"Lawn bowling party, I think it was last," Aaron said in a bored tone that came out haughty. "Must have been, well, ten years ago; I was still in Hogwarts. That was back when my mother attended more than she hosted." He turned a circle as he walked, taking in the grounds. "Amazing to think, no one to inherit all this."

Harry decided to keep to himself the fact that he himself could have.

The butler promptly escorted them in and Aaron agreed to wait in the entry hall for Harry to return. Harry followed the slightly stooped and squinting butler through several shuttered rooms into one flooded with light.

"Ah, Mr. Potter, do come in," Freelander said. He used his cane to rise from a small, white baroque desk and came around to where a pair of long blue couches dominated the floor, surrounded by an army of chairs. He gestured for Harry to take a tall chair whose cushion turned out to be softer than it appeared.

Freelander sat on a couch and set his cane aside. "Well, I expected this visit to have come a year ago, if it was going to occur at all. But, my offer of assistance was open ended and still stands, of course." He gazed at Harry frankly as he asked, "So, what can I do for you?"

"It isn't actually for me, the assistance isn't," Harry awkwardly began. "What I'm trying to say is, a friend and neighbor of mine, a witch in a Muggle household, has begun to find it difficult to remain at home. She's attending Oxford now," Harry rushed in to say, since he felt he was losing his audience. "And she wants to continue that, but it is difficult what with being cut off from her family's assistance. Well, I would help her myself if I could. I know what it's like to be stuck in a house that forbids magic, but I don't have any funds of my own. I thought first of coming to you for money for myself and getting help for her from my adoptive father . . . but that seemed a bit silly, so I thought I'd come with a direct appeal for her."

"What is this young lady's name?"

"Elizabeth Peterson. Her mum's a witch, but doesn't practice magic much at the insistence of her husband. They live just down the road in Shrewsthorpe."

"I assume the daughter did not attend Hogwarts if she gained a place at Oxford."

"No, she didn't. But there are loads of magical tutors around. And she does want to learn more than her mother taught her growing up, before her father decided he didn't like it."

Freelander stared out the window where leaf-filtered sunlight sparkled. Harry waited patiently while he pondered. Freelander finally said, "Did you come alone, Mr. Potter? I read somewhere that you were always to be under guard."

"No, I came with a guard. He is waiting in the entry hall."

Freelander plucked a small wand from his pocket and used it to jerk the thick bell cord in the corner of the room. Far off in the vast house a muted ringing sounded. A servant in white came to the doorway.

"Bring tea, Benjamin, and bring our other guest to join us." He placed his hands on his lap and sitting a little straighter said, "We might as well enjoy a spot while we consider the problem you have brought to us, Mr. Potter." He sat thoughtfully, until there was a noise near the door. "I have to admit I find your appeal for another to be a tribute to your character, and reinforces that I did not make a mistake in my earlier judgement of you."

"Mr. Wickem, sir," the servant announced from the doorway.

Freelander's head came up faster than expected. "Mr. Wickem," he repeated, not quite a greeting. "You are here with Mr. Potter?"

Aaron slid over to them, navigating the excessive furniture with practiced ease and gave a bow. "Yes sir. I'm the guard of the moment." He gestured gallantly back at the doorway. "Though, I'm a little reluctant to interrupt this meeting of the Harry Potter Appreciation Society."

Freelander colored slightly. "Have a seat, Mr. Wickem." The statement was not so much welcoming as resigned to being polite.

Crooked grin still in place, Aaron accepted the indicated chair and said lightly, "Not that I doubt I could pass the initiation into such an able society . . ." He sat back, crossed his arms, but held them formally high on his chest, and winked at Harry. He looked very much in his natural environment. "Knowing Harry, it would involve demonstrable skill at Quidditch and dueling someone evil. I'm certain I could manage, given some time to prepare." After a beat, he added: "I'm confident of a win as long as it's a Malfoy I get to duel."

Tea arrived, just in time, by Harry's judgement. It came on two large silver trays, one stacked with little sandwiches, the other with biscuits.

"Please." Freelander indicated they could start with a gesture. With a slight scowl marring his middle-aged brow, Freelander said to Aaron, "I'm a little curious how you came to be assigned as a guard to Mr. Potter."

"I was drafted. It's a bit like being assigned to the trenches in France, except it involves more photographers and better beer."

Harry had learned a bit about his fellow over the last year. One of the things he had learned was that Aaron pulled out his flippant silliness when he was trying to remain aloof. Harry was not as familiar with Lord Freelander, but his growing sense of vague dismay was confirmed when he said, "Strange choice," with clear disappointment.

Harry took a deep breath and held it. Aaron, did not take this comment too personally, or if he did, he kept it hidden in his move to sit more casually in a chair that resisted it by design.

Harry needed something from Freelander and found himself limited in defensive comments as a result. Very factually and conversationally, he said, "Aaron is in the Auror's program with me. We are second-years together."

Freelander froze with his small teacup poised before him. "The Auror's program?" Moving slowly, he took a sip and returned his cup and saucer to the low table between them. "It was my understanding that academic qualifications for that are quite high. You did not even sit for any N.E.W.T.s did you, Mr. Wickem?"

"Not while at school, I didn't," Aaron said, while Harry glanced between them and considered that Freelander had a pretty good memory and kept surprisingly abreast of his bowling party guests. "I didn't feel doing so at the time," Aaron explained. "But I decided it was what I wanted to do. So I hired tutors and kept retaking the admissions examinations until I did well enough to get in."

Freelander seemed be reassessing. "Fine determination on your part."

Airily, Aaron said, "I was bored. I needed something to do besides party every night."

Freelander hefted his teacup again after the servant refilled it. His finger tapped the handle as he composed what to say. "And have you settled down in other ways as well?"

"Ah, no," Aaron admitted, slightly wistful. "I haven't managed to excel at that examination yet."

Freelander considered Aaron for half a minute, before turning back to Harry. "Well, Mr. Potter," he began, sounding less himself. "I think we can make some kind of arrangement. If you don't mind, perhaps we will put your name on it. Structure it as an open fellowship and see what happens long-term."

"Thank you, sir."

Aaron glanced curiously between them, but remained silent between sips of tea and bites of biscuit and prim bites of biscuit with pinkies extended.

On the walk back down the drive, with the sparkling white gravel shifting underfoot, Harry's thoughts moved from pleasure at solving Elizabeth's financial problems to a niggling curiosity about Freelander.

Harry asked, "So, was it a bit odd to you that Lord Freelander remembered that you hadn't tried for your N.E.W.T.s?"

It was a dozen or so steps before Aaron answered. He sunk his hands in his pockets and slumped slightly before replying. "My mum used to be more in his circle when I was in school." The crunching gravel took over again until they reached the gate posts where they stopped. The breeze emerging from the trees felt chilled despite the warm day. "The expectations were so high. Honestly, it's one of the reasons I didn't take my N.E.W.T.s. Everyone expected the world out of me and my friends, and heck, my parents had enough money; it didn't matter what I did."

"Well, but, I'd think you'd want to make your own way. Wouldn't you want to?"

Aaron lost his grim attitude. "In the end I decided that. It helped that I was attempting something no one, but no one, thought I could do. For the first few years, they thought it was funny, then they thought I was unhealthfully obsessed. Then they decided I wasn't as much fun at parties anymore. I may have given up on my fourth try except what my father said to me a few weeks before he died. He said, he finally believed that I really could do it—could get an Auror apprenticeship."

"You've never mentioned your dad," Harry said.

"He was gone a lot when I was growing up. He was on the Continent all the time on business. I thought mum would have more trouble getting along without him, but she's done fine."

"Speaking of doing fine, want to try to catch up on readings this afternoon at my place?" Harry asked.

"You mean, actually do the readings for once?" Aaron asked, sounding ambivalent.

Harry grinned. "That's what I meant."

"You're not trying to take advantage of this momentary weakness I'm having because of that little exchange in there, are you?"

"No," Harry insisted.

Aaron stared off along the high stone wall surrounding the Freelander estate. "Yeah, why not? Let's do some revising."

Harry arrived home to find Ginny on the couch in the main hall, chatting with Winky, who stood shyly before the witch, clutching her tea-towel.

"I'm sorry, I lost track of the time, I think," Harry said.

Ginny stood, eying Aaron as she sidled over to them. "No worries. I'm not assigned for another hour, just thought you'd be home early." And, Harry could see in her gaze, she was hoping to see Aaron.

"Shall we run some drills? I'll show you a new counter and you can help me work on something I'm trying to figure out."

"And I shall . . . ?" Aaron asked airily.

"You can read aloud to both of us," Harry said. "This will be just like Hogwarts again, us all studying together."

Aaron took up a spot on the couch, opened one of the books from his bag and began flipping through it while the two of them rearranged the remaining furniture off to the side. "Except we were stuck in the dungeon, you got a tower."

"Are Slytherins always so whingy?" Ginny asked.

"I Am. Not. Whinging," Aaron stated primly. "I never whinge." He flipped a few pages more, seeming nervous maybe, which Harry took as a good sign for Ginny. "I go straight to all out fit if you must know. Shall we begin? Chapter Eight: Counters and Counteractions," he announced to the room. Then mumbled, "I'm going to need a pub after this."

"Sounds good to me," Ginny said, eyes asparkle as she raised her wand to match Harry's.

Author's Notes: Something about my workday having no overlap with anyone else's has freed up some time, surprisingly... Ah, and scenes got shifted around, thought we'd have some action this round but I was wrong. And sorry for the change in format, mid-story; I'm trying to replace the scene breaks with real transitions.

Next: Chapter 16

Inside the pub a burly, bald man stood wiping down the bar, deep-set eyes nearly hidden under his long eyebrows. He stared at Harry along with everyone else. All conversation had stopped when the door opened. Harry limped up to the bar, not needing much fakery to manage this and ordered a butterbeer with a raspy, weak voice.

The bartender laughed mockingly but he fetched a dusty old bottle and opened it with his teeth before plonking it down. Harry tossed two Sickles on the bar, saying, "Use the change to buy a few rags that are only decade old."

Harry picked up his drink and wandered to an empty table, on the way scooping up off the end of the bar what he had come for: a ragged pile of old Daily Prophets.

Chapter 16: Halloween Friends
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Chapter 16 — Halloween Friends

Aaron returned from the light-haloed bar through the darkness with more drinks, sloshing some because a mug caught the edge of the high table.

"Thank you for buying another round," Ginny said.

Harry brushed droplets of beer off his trousers and said, "We should have waited for Thursday to go out, maybe."

Ginny shot him a look meant to dissuade such talk and Harry subtly held up his hands in surrender. Aaron regained his stool and slid the drinks to each of them over the suddenly less sticky tabletop.

"You should do fine next year," Aaron said to Ginny, continuing their conversation after clearing his throat. "You understood more of those two chapters I read than I did."

Ginny shrugged and dropped her gaze.

Aaron again cleared his raspy throat. "Someone else will have to read next time. Though, I'll admit, I paid attention to every word by reading aloud. That's why a second beer was essential." He held his mug up for a casual clacking of glasses. "If we can turn revising and practice into a party, count me in every time."

After a thirst-quenching lull, Harry asked, "How are things at Weasley Wheezes?"

Ginny replied, "Swimming. They still won't let me do any mixing. I think now they won't because they're afraid later when I'm an Auror I'll know all the illegal ingredients they're using, as opposed to the few I catch an eyeful of when accidents happen, which is too often. I think at least one of the upstairs walls is just an illusion put up after one especially bad one." She sipped her beer and waited for a group of Muggles to make their way past their table to the bar, bumping into them in the dimness of the pub. "If Diagon Alley ever burns down, you'll know where to start the investigation."

"Such a loyal sister. Makes me glad I have no siblings," Aaron said.

"You can have a few of my brothers. I have extra. How many do you want?"

"Hm," Aaron said thoughtfully. "You can keep the twins, and Percy . . ."

Ginny slumped over her mug. "Figures you'd say that. Ron and Bill work at Gringotts. You're probably familiar with that place," she said with a hint of sarcasm. "You probably have two vaults there, or a dedicated wing."

"Ah, therein lies a tale . . ." Aaron said accompanied by a large swig of his drink. He sighed and traced his finger through the liquid on the table, which reflected ripples from the fake gas lamp light mounted on the wall beside them. "It will probably hopelessly decrease me in your eyes, but . . . my mum keeps me on an allowance."

Ginny laughed. "At least you get an allowance. You'll eventually inherit something, right?"

Aaron tossed his hand. "Presumably."

"Your mum must trust you not to off her."

Aaron stared at her, but said after a sip: "She knows I'm too lazy to do that."

"Well . . . how old is she now, your mum?"

"The question is: how old is great-grandmum."

"Oh dear," Ginny said with a giggle.

"These are the sort of old ladies that stash gold in old hats, charm them invisible, and hang them from trees in a remote forest somewhere by broomstick. Usually after tippling the cooking sherry. Who knows if they even remember where the money is."

Harry said, "No wonder you're working to be gainfully employed."

"Harry, my dear man, an Auror's salary is not 'gainfully employed'. But as a wage-based position is makes everyone my mother luncheons with distinctly uncomfortable. On that point it IS gainful."

On the way home, Aaron insisted that he would escort Harry home. They both escorted Ginny home first, after much arguing on her part that it was unnecessary. The two of them remained standing, framing the Burrow's hearth while they waited for Ginny, who arrived presently. Mr. Weasley sat hunched over the dining table on a stool that had been repaired with what could be a bent car axle. "Well, I guess there was no reason to worry about the late night with you two on duty."

"Good night, dad," Ginny said disgustedly, as she marched to the stairs. "Thanks for thoroughly embarrassing me."

"Good night, sir," Harry said to the accompaniment of Ginny's pounding footsteps on the staircase.

"Hm," Aaron said moments later while pacing around the main hall in Shrewsthorpe. "It's not even that late."

"Mr. Weasley gets an early start," Harry said.

"I didn't mean that." Aaron crossed his arms and looked at Harry. "So, you haven't told me 'hands off', I'm wondering if or when I should expect it."

Harry stopped sorting out which books were Aaron's from the neat piles Winky had made on the end table. "Why would you expect it?" Harry asked.

"Not keeping her in the wings? She seemed previously to be keeping herself in the wings. I thought for a while tonight that she was trying to make you jealous. I don't expect I could reliably out-compete you in this arena. I'm grateful I don't usually have to."

"I am not keeping her in the wings," Harry said. "She's like a younger sister."

"Oh. That's worse," Aaron exclaimed in surprise.

"How so?" Harry said, handing his books to him.

The bedroom door upstairs opened. "Oh, Harry, you're home," Candide said.

"Yeah, turned into a late night," Harry said. "Sorry, are we disturbing you?"

"No, I was waiting up for your guard. Due in a few minutes, isn't she?"

Harry glanced at the clock. "Yes. How was work?"

"Alright, I should get to sleep, though."

"Good idea," Harry gently agreed.

When the door had clicked closed again, Aaron said, "So, as far as you're concerned I can take Little Miss Weasley out."

Harry felt a twinge of something, but determined it was just some residual protective instinct. "Don't hurt her," he blurted.

"Oh, please. You are so old fashioned. What does that mean?"

"It means," Harry said, stepping closer, not quite in a manner of facing the other man down. "Don't promise things you don't intend to deliver on."

"I'm very careful not to do that," Aaron smugly replied.

They stared at each other until Harry said, "That's all you're going to hear from me."

"That just leaves Mr. Weasley." He paced once. "I forgot about Mr. Weasley."

"How could you forget him?" Harry asked. "You work for him."

"He's just that kind of guy," Aaron insisted. "You know . . . forgettable."

- 888 -

Harry did not make it all the way though the week without another nightmare. After a particularly tough day of working on their power during training, Harry again dreamed he was fighting with Rodgers but had no wand to fight back with.

This time Candide woke him. Harry lifted his head from the mound of his pillow and saw Hornisham shuffling out the door to leave them alone. He grudgingly propped his head up on his hand and waited for Candide to say more than his name. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, which made him uncomfortable in the same way Mrs. Weasley did whenever she tried to treat him the same as Ron.

"Do you want me to owl Severus?"

"No," Harry stated with clipped certainty. "It's fine."

She did not move right away, so Harry said, "I'm just dreaming about training. It really isn't something to worry about."

"Training gives you nightmares?" she returned, surprised.

Harry paused and considered that perfectly valid question in the private darkness of the room. The floor creaked outside the door where Hornisham waited. "Er . . . " Harry began, but then wondered if it was something else again that was really bothering him. The other dreams had been his subconscious fear that he was not really home. What could this one mean? It had not gone away like the others.

"Harry?" she prompted, insisting on an answer. "Why would Auror training bother you so. Don't you do well at it?"

"Ummm," Harry sat up, propping his back against the headboard. He tiredly scratched his head and said, "In my dream I never seem to have a wand. Or I can't find my wand. No, I just don't have it," he corrected after thinking it over more. Meaning teased at the edge of his sleep-heavy brain, but he could not grasp it.

Candide stood up. "Well, other than bothering you, that doesn't sound serious. Or should I owl Severus?"

"No, no," Harry insisted. "I just have to figure it out," he said, mind far away.

"Well, if you think talking it out will help, let me know."

"Um, thanks. I'm fine right now." He added, "Good night," as she moved to the door and changed with the guard.

- 888 -

Harry decided to wait for Freelander's paperwork to be finalized before attempting to explain the funding situation to Elizabeth. Without the proper details at his disposal, Harry worried that he would be unable to work around any pride issues that may crop up. He did not see her again until Halloween when she made an appearance at his party, dressed as a disturbingly accurate hag.

Squinting at the dried-fruit-skinned, hairy-chinned figure that Ginny led into the relatively quiet party, Harry asked, "Who are you?"

"Elizabeth . . ." she replied, partly a question.

"Oh," Harry said. "I didn't . . . you look great. Um, well, not great. Well, you know what I mean."

Tonks had sidled over while Harry struggled. "Nice disguise."

Elizabeth, wart hairs bobbing, said, "Thanks. Ginny helped a bit."

"Did she?" Harry said, wondering about that.

At this cue, Ginny, bearing white horse ears and a spiral horn on her forehead, strolled casually away to the drink table. Tonks followed her off with a dubious glance at Harry.

Elizabeth leaned closer, on the side away from where Kali perched on Harry's shoulder, and said, "I didn't feel comfortable coming recognizable. It's too close to home."

"Yeah," Harry said. "It's a disguise worthy of an Auror, really." He tried to hold an enthusiastic tone, but had trouble. "Want a drink? I could use a refill."

"What are you supposed to be?" she asked on the way. "A phoenix?"

"A Griffin. I had to give up on the paws in order to open the door and serve drinks. I still have a lion's tail." He rotated to show off his Weasley Wizard Wheezes Trusty Twitching Tail.

"Ah," she sounded unimpressed.

Harry, figuring if she could feel critical of him, that she must be feeling better, led the way to the snacks. "How are you doing?" he asked on the way.

"Well enough. I miss my piano, but it will be a long time before I can get one of my own or a suitable keyboard, even."

From beside the table, Ginny scanned the room. "Where's your guard?" she asked knowingly.

Harry replied, "Fetching his date."

"Oh," Ginny replied, her chipperness slipping.

Tonks said with a laugh, "Knowing him, it's someone he met on the underground yesterday morning."

This did not ease Ginny's dismay. Harry tried to rub his forehead, forgetting that he wore a beak mask. He straightened his headgear and sought out Hermione, expecting her to be a safe conversation partner.

He found Hermione on the couch, leaning far forward towards Vineet on the opposing couch, hands emerging from her formal robes to be clasped vice-like before her. Harry decided it was past time to check in with her. He sat down beside Vineet when Ron shoved over.

"What are you dressed as?" Harry asked. "No, let me guess: a Hogwarts professor."

Hermione pulled out her wand. "The charm keeps wearing off," she said, dismayed. She tapped her chest and her robes turned purple, making the homemade felt W more obvious. "Supposed to be Wizengamot."

"Ah," Harry said, wondering if he sounded like Elizabeth just a minute ago. While he was sitting, Kali took the opportunity to crawl off his shoulder and around the couch to investigate things.

"You would be a exemplary member of the Wizengamot," Vineet stated with grave seriousness.

Hermione blushed and tried to keep her lips straight. "Maybe someday."

Lavender, wearing ragged men's clothes, came over and sat in Ron's lap. Mrs. Norris blinked at them all from her arms.

"And who are you dressed as?" Harry asked.

"Don't ask," Ron insisted at the same instant Lavender chirped, "Filch."

"Well, you do have his cat," Hermione said, straining to sound neutral.

"Mostly I wanted to drive Ron bongo," she happily explained while petting the ratty cat.

This did not stop Mrs. Norris from hissing at Kali, who raised her wings and backed away, also hissing. Kali backed off Harry onto Vineet's shoulder. Harry voiced a warning when Vineet reached a hand to her and she hissed at the Indian instead.

Vineet said, "She is an bloodheart leech, correct?"

"I'm not certain what that is," Harry said at the same time Hermione replied, "Yes."

Extending his hand within the danger zone, Vineet softly said, "Sometimes you must get hurt to prove something, especially to one with such a name." He didn't even flinch when Kali struck out at his hand. Her nose went to work immediately after, scenting out the blood slipping from two slits across the back of his hand.

Hermione cringed and looked away as the Chimrian began licking the blood away.
Wounds healed, Vineet moved his hand closer and Kali climbed on, nose sniffing fiercely. She made the rounds of his robes before returning to sleep on Harry's shoulder with a satiated flop of her limbs.

Hermione glanced up at someone behind Harry, "Let me guess, Oliver, right?"

Harry turned and found Aaron, also wearing threadbare clothes, face smeared with coal.

"You got it. My favorite costume. Lets me practice my pickpocketing without trouble."

"You, a pickpocket?" Hermione asked, laughing.

Aaron held up a familiar, colorful woven purse. "Isn't this yours?" he asked innocently.

Hermione's face transformed into insulted. "Yes! Give that back."

Aaron gallantly bowed to hand it over. Hermione flipped it open and closed, saying, "I had it charmed too!"

"Not very well, Madame Charms Professor. I would suggest working out something combinatorial rather than simply strongly fixed"

Hermione slipped her purse away in her handbag. "I will; believe me."

Ginny slid quietly over to their group. Harry, thinking to help her out, asked his fellow trainee, "Where's your date?"

"Over there," Aaron said, angling his head to the corner of the room.

All eyes turned that way, where a tall woman with towering blond hair stood talking with Kerry Ann. She wore a glittering, chained bodice under her velvet cloak. Ginny took on a posture of defeat and scratched one tall white ear as though it itched her greatly.

Hermione spoke first. "Who's she dressed as, Bellatrix Lestrange?"

Harry choked down a laugh. "Maybe," Aaron said. "I expect her teeth are not normally so pointy."

Bill propped himself up to see better and said in alarm, "Vespera has a sister?"

This led the surrounding Weasleys to laugh uproariously.

Ginny sent one last glance at the pair of women and headed back to the drink table, downing most of a full mug on the way. Harry extricated himself, handed Kali off to Vineet, and followed her over.

She started when she found him behind her. "Hey," she muttered, refilling her cider.

"Your aren't allowed to get drunk," Harry pointed out, "You're one of my guards."

"You don't need a guard." She put her head down and muttered, "Anymore than Prince Wickem there needs another girlfriend."

Elizabeth slipped closer. "You have your eye on someone?" she asked Ginny.

Ginny glanced at her, but ignored the question. "I should have dressed like you. I see the appeal of not caring to even try." She stroked her short horn and then her pink-hued silver hair. "Kind of a stupid costume, isn't it?" she asked.

"I think it's cute," Harry said. "You did a very nice job on the ears." He pried the refilled cider from her fingers, feeling emboldened by the extra time they had been together that week. "Why don't I drink this one?"

"Yeah," she said and sighed.

Harry glanced behind him to make sure Aaron was out of range. "It's him, really, I've rarely seen the same girl twice."

"That's a bad sign," Elizabeth agreed.

"I could have brought a date, too, but didn't," Ginny grumpily said. The music increased in volume and couples started to dance, including Aaron and his date.

Elizabeth took Ginny by the elbow. "Come on, let's dance. Who cares about having a date?"

They moved off to the open area and Harry returned to the couch. He dropped down beside Hermione, whose robes had faded halfway to black again already.

A few minutes later Tonks leaned over Harry's back, and said, "I've got a call. I'm taking Kerry Ann, so make sure Aaron stays as second guard."

Harry tried hard not to rebel at the notion of needing a minimum of two guards in a crowd.

Hermione answered for him. "We will."

"Speaking of security. Someone should have frisked Blonde Vespera when she came in," Bill said, eyeing the full head of hair bobbing over the other dancers.

Ron shuddered. "You go tell her that. I didn't bring any dragon skin gloves to the party."

Bill said, "If this were the bank, she'd have been directed through the triple-long identification process."

"Do you recognize her?" Hermione asked.

Bill and Ron both shook their heads.

After midnight, guests began to leave in earnest. Harry, Hermione, Ginny, Vineet and Ron occupied the couches, tucking into a second round of snacks. Aaron, leading his starry-eyed date by the hand, said, "Well, we're off."

"You can't be. You have to stay," Harry enjoyed informing him, due to Ginny's deepening frown at their approach.

Stunned, Aaron echoed, "I have to stay?"

Everyone nodded while Vineet explained, "Tonks informed us of this before departing."

"Oh." Aaron extricated his hand. To his date, he said, "Duty calls, I'm afraid."

In a faint accent, his date said, "You are not coming to the . . . next party?"

"No, I can't. I know I agreed we'd split the evening, but I have Ministry duties."

Her cold grey eyes took in the remaining guests. Her eyes contrasted with her strange beauty which radiated a pushy warmth. "I am supposed to bring . . . a guest."

"Yeah, I know, you said, but I can't," Aaron insisted. He took her by the arm. "Here, I'll show you to the Floo." The others watched them navigate across the floor to the dining room.

"Kind of a strange bird," Ron said. "Full security scan."

Bill said, "She didn't pay any attention to Harry. I was keeping an eye on that." He stood and said, "Well, my girl will be home from the evening shift and is going to wonder where I am, but I wanted to stay until the strangers all left."

Harry took a breath, prepared to yell at him, at all of them, for their care. He clenched his teeth instead, reminding himself that someone had tried twice to kill him, and they only wanted to help, just like he would want to help if the situation were reversed. It only helped a little to remind himself of this. The party was emptying out. Harry wished that Belinda had accepted his invitation. He needed to corner and talk to her again, but resisted because of the emotional strain on her last time. He expected that if she wished to talk, she could easily find him, and short of that, pursuing the issue would be cruel.

Hermione stood as well and gave Harry a hug. "I have to get back too. I only got away because Minerva expected that I could report back on how you are doing, Harry. And I have the night shift ahead, patrolling the grounds after the feast."

"Thanks for coming, especially since it made you miss out on your first Halloween Feast at Hogwarts."

"Oh, as a teacher, skipping the feasts is not a sacrifice, believe me." She gave a surreptitious glance back in the direction Vineet sat, reserved as ever even with Kali draped on his knee, tiny eyes peering up at the room.

"Have a good rest of the evening. And be careful," she commanded Harry before heading to the hearth.

"No one gives me any choice but to be," Harry complained.

She stopped to peck him on the cheek. "Poor Harry. Confined to a boring life, caged like one of Hagrid's creatures."

"Um, yeah," Harry replied. "You're sober enough to get home, right?"

- 888 -

"We are going to try something new today: Double-reverse counters," Rodgers said the next Monday. "This is for defending from behind, hopefully needed because you are in thick of things rather than because you are running away." He gave them each an eyeing to reinforce this opinion, ending with Harry. "Potter, come up here."

Their trainer continued, "Most counters will work in double-reverse, but for the strongest ones you are often relying on the appearance of the spell to control it, even if you don't realize it. So, to cast it blind requires some practice. Let's start with a Titan since that one is just cast with the wand pointing backward. Turn around."

Harry faced the wall, feeling vaguely uneasy about having his back to Rodgers.

"Point your wand back at me."

Harry hooked his wand in his fingers and hung his hand over his right shoulder.

"Now I'm going to show you why that's not right. Flibbergibbit!"

Harry felt the curse, cast a block, but the tendrils of the spell took out his feet, and he hit the floor.

As Harry picked himself up on shock-stunned knees, Rodgers commented, "For someone who lives under the same roof as a Death Eater, I'd have expected you to have more experience with getting hit from behind."

Harry did not immediately have a response to that implied insult to his guardian. Tridant tittered from the back of the room. Harry remained facing his trainer, unable to let the comment slide. "I'll thank you to not get too personal, sir," he said.

Rodgers slapped his wand against his leg in annoyance. "Oh, come now, Potter. I'm trying to make you angry so you put a little bit more into those counters of yours. You treated it as routine. Turn around again."

Biting down on more he wished to say, Harry turned around, wand over his shoulder, despite his face growing hot.

Rodgers said, "His former colleagues were put away long ago. If he couldn't handle the hit to his reputation, he shouldn't have kept such poor company."

Harry hit the floor again but was jarred less this time. It reminded him too much of endless curses from Ginny in the afternoons that he also could not block because he was insisting it could be done without a wand.

"Potter, were you listening to the explanation at all? Sit down and watch for a few rounds, eh?"

Harry, stretching his back, slumped in his chair and watched Kerry Ann tackle a reversed Titan and begin the shifted phase spelling needed on a reversed chrysanthemum, this time with her wand forward. While this went on, a thought vibrated in Harry's head, trying to to coalesce into something substantial. As Aaron changed places with Kerry Ann, Harry began to feel worry, the kind that made his heart feel like clay. Snape's voice echoed in his memory with a taint of dread, I don't have much power, Potter. Especially now.

Harry breathed in and out, trying not to let panicked concern overtake his thoughts when he could be called up in a moment to practice something he was having trouble learning. But he could not shake his realization that he had left the other-dimension Snape to manage by himself with no patron to defend him. At the time, that had been expedient and Harry had not thought twice about it until now. He gathered his wits and repeatedly squashed his worry while Aaron got extra help.

Harry got a break from this new concern the next day when something positive distracted him. Freelander owled at the Ministry, requesting that Harry visit the next afternoon to sign some paperwork with the solicitors present. Harry, to spare both his patron and his fellow from another visit, thought it best to ask Ginny to accompany him. Vineet followed Harry home to wait for her to arrive for their usual Wednesday practice.

Winky appeared instantly with tea and little chocolate cakes. Vineet silently plucked two from the tray and sat on the couch with them balanced on the palm of his right hand. He stared blankly beyond the wall and the flickering hearth.

"Maybe you should be my guard more often," Harry said, thinking they did not talk nearly enough and that it was clearly not for the best that Vineet continued to spend his evenings alone.

"I would be honored," Vineet said.

"Well, don't go that far . . ."

Ginny arrived and Harry saw his fellow trainee off with the promise to see to it that he be assigned as Harry's guard that weekend.

"I'm worried about him," Harry said to Ginny as they walked up the gravel drive between the ostentatious gates of the Freelander estate. "He's too quiet and I can't tell what he's thinking." Harry walked with his hands in his pockets, head down and thoughtful. Ginny craned her neck forward and back to better see through the gaps in the high fence.

"Sorry, I'm listening . . . Merlin's molars this is one hell of a place."

"What? Oh, yeah."

Ginny's exclamations of astonishment only increased as they were led through room after room laden with elegantly curved, painted wood framing furniture and paintings. She spoke variations on: "This is someone's house? Jeepers. This place is unreal." all the way through the house.

The butler was a smart man, before the last door, he took hold of the twin handles and announced, "This is the meeting room."

Ginny fell quiet and followed Harry inside where a group gathered around a broad but dainty-legged white desk sporting excessive baroque flourishes.

"Mister Potter, please come in." Freelander gestured at the others encircling the desk and said, "This is Gottfried, Polstar, and Contango. I have retained them to oversee the fund's formation. Ah, and you have a new guard today, one much easier on the eyes."

Harry introduced Ginny, who kept herself back from the desk, hands clasped formally behind her back. The solicitors, two men and a woman in identical Muggle suits, bowed or held a hand out. The men eyed Harry with curiosity. The man introduced as Gottfried said, "A pleasure to finally meet you. My grandmum was a witch but that was the end of the line for our family. She talked endlessly about Dumbledore and Grindelwald when we were young." He sounded wistful, which matched his child-like, but balding appearance.

"It's not necessarily the end of the line," Harry said. "Some families skip three or four generations."

"I've tried to tell him that," Freelander said.

Gottfried appeared ambivalent to thoughts of magical offspring. "We'll see, I guess."

Freelander moved along with business, leading Harry on a tour through a stack of thick parchments that spelled out minute details of how funds would be allocated and how often and under what circumstances they could be withheld.

"For the time being, I think you can decide yourself who best to assign the fellowship to." Freelander held up a parchment. "But this lays out the procedure for the formation of a committee to advise on appropriate recipients."

Harry signed that one first since he understood it and it did not take effect right away. The next one required more time. While he decoded the mile-long strings of clauses, Freelander engaged Ginny in conversation.

"So, Weasley, I recall that name from somewhere."

"There are quite a few of us," Ginny admitted. "My brothers run a shop on Diagon Alley. So you may have seen the name there."

"I'm afraid I don't get down there nearly as often as I used to. I have to admit, you look a bit delicate for a magical guard, young lady, to my old eyes, that is."

With a bright cuteness that made a startled Harry lower the densely arcane legal document he held, Ginny replied, "I'm frequently underestimated. It's one of my best advantages. But if you'd like a résumé, I'll gladly provide one."

Harry feared that Freelander may find this out of line and was surprised when the man smiled, crossed his arms and indulged her by saying, "Go ahead; I am curious."

Harry tried to return to the dry text wallpapering the long sheet before him while Ginny rocked up on her toes and said, "I finished seven O.W.L.s and five N.E.W.T.s. I've fought Death Eaters and Voldemort alongside Harry." She stopped at the exclamations of disbelief and one condescending chuckle from the oldest solicitor.

"No, that's true," Harry said while signing the parchment before him without finishing it beyond a quick glance because the long words were all running together and seemed to repeat just to make the document look longer.

Ginny went on, "I rescued Harry from Merton. I won the first Demise of Voldemort Day Dueling competition."

When she wound down, Harry added, "She passed half the Auror's testing with flying colors."

Ginny fidgeted by rocking up higher on her toes. "That too. Just have to pass the other half now."

"Well, good to know you are on the case," Freelander said, sounding the chummiest Harry had ever heard him.

Harry continued through the documents, asking a few questions, mostly to keep up the appearance that he understood everything he was signing. Ginny filled the time by asking about the plentiful wizard paintings surrounding them, which Freelander, shuffled over to discuss. They made their way around the room, Freelander growing more animated as they went.

While the solicitors packed their things into aromatic leather cases and shook hands all around before departing, Freelander insisted Harry and Ginny remain for dinner. Harry may have resisted the invitation if Ginny had not lit up like a candle at it.

Ginny's eyes glowed as she gazed around the grand dining room where the long, long table barely made an impact on the floor space. The three of them crowded one end of the table and the servants ferried one silver-covered dish after another from far away in the middle of it.

"Beatrice is at her father's this evening," Freelander explained of his wife when Harry asked. "When I married her five years ago, she was not occupied at all. That's why I married her, but she runs three foundations of her own now as well as caring for her father." Sounding wry, he said, "I seem to be last in line on her schedule."

"Maybe you should try polygamy," Harry said without much forethought. Ginny coughed on her soup and started laughing until she managed to stifle it with a napkin.

"Sorry," she said shyly. "Where'd that come from?" she demanded quietly.

"Oh, Vineet. He said there are different laws in India for different groups, and some wizards there still practice it."

Ginny stared at him and Harry wondered if she wished she knew some Legilimency. "Do I want to know what this is in reference to?"

"Probably not," Harry replied. With a glance at their thoughtful host, he said, "Maybe we should find a better topic." He leaned back as his bowl was exchanged for yet another plate.

"No, young man, that's all right. Ten years ago, I'd have been appalled, but I've grown old enough now to find myself uncaring what anyone else wishes to do with themselves."

"As long as witches get polyandry too," Ginny said slyly. "I'd be all for it."

One course later, she asked, "So, your children have moved on?"

Harry gave a warning shake of his head, but Freelander raised his glass to Harry in a kind of toast, saying, "We'll see if they've all moved on."

Harry hurriedly clinked his glass to his host's, confused. He should not have done it, but he was concerned his asking for help may have raised the man's expectations for something Harry did not intend to provide. What he read in Freelander's eyes confused him more. He fell silent and a little panicked through the rest of the meal, which had only two more courses, and passed quickly once conversation lagged.

On the way down the drive late that evening, Ginny sleepily hooked her arm through Harry's and said, "I love being your guard. That was a wonderful dinner." When Harry did not find a comment, she said, "You have an elf and eat like that all the time, I guess."

"Not quite like that. We never have oyster caviar au gratin."

"Pureed on toast points," Ginny added brightly.

Harry laughed.

Ginny added with a grand sigh, "Man, what a way to live."

The lamps on the gate flickered on as they approached it. In the still air, their voices sounded loud. "It could have been mine," Harry said.

"You're joking," Ginny said, the grip on his arm growing almost painful.

"He wanted to adopt me."

"OH. Well, that explains his odd comment."

"It sort of explains his odd comment," Harry said, voice far away.

"What's that mean?"

"I have to think on it," Harry said, not wanting to speak ill of his patron.

Harry put aside his thoughts of Freelander that evening to worry again about the other dimension Snape. It was a dreading, semi-helpless worry, like the kind he had been a constant companion as a child and he did not like it rearing up again.

To distract himself, he went to see Elizabeth, to whom he had paperwork and good news to deliver. Ginny agreed easily to follow him on this task while Hornisham waited at home, since the nearly retired witch could not even remotely approach passing for Muggle.

Elizabeth came to the door, looking tired. Her roommate was installed on the couch, crisps in hand, watching some Muggle program.

"Ah, the boyfriend," Diane said coyly. Elizabeth cringed. And when Ginny stepped in, Diane said, "Oh, never mind."

"Sorry to call so late," Harry said, ignoring the comments. "But I wanted to bring you these things." With a happy anticipation at her reaction, he handed over the scrolls outlining the fellowship. Ginny stepped back to lean on the wall, tactfully out of the way.

Harry went on, "I have a patron, whom I've never asked anything of. He formed a fund for a fellowship for, uh, people like you to study at university." Very quietly, he added, "Witches and wizards, you know." Then back in a normal voice: "I get to dole it out to whomever I want."

She looked up from the densely printed parchments with round-eyed surprise. "Are you saying it's for me?"

Harry, feeling unusually nervous, jerked one hand out of his back pocket to gesture at what she held. "It's a fellowship for your studies."

She needed a moment to recover and her eyes went wet as she did. "Harry, that's so sweet of you."

Diane approached from the couch and took the parchments. "What odd paper."

Biting her lip, Elizabeth took them back. "I get to read them first," she said. But she did not open them. Instead, she gave Harry a firm hug. "Thanks. I don't know what to say."

"It's all right. I feel kind of responsible."

She pushed him away to arm's length. "You what?" she asked critically.

Harry held back his smile at her return to normal. "Well, I thought that if I hadn't, I don't know, inspired you to do more, er, things your dad disapproved of . . ."

"Harry," she said in a lecturing tone. "I was so overdue to get away from home. My only regret is none of it happened sooner." She unrolled the parchments. "Thanks. God, I don't know what to say."

"It's not his money," Diane pointed out.

"She's right," Harry said.

"And Freelander has plenty," Ginny tossed in.

"Yeah, but it was your doing," Elizabeth clarified. She drooped slightly. "I was in such a state yesterday, and now this . . ."

She sounded teary-eyed, and Harry wanted to hug her again, perhaps more than he really should, so he said, "I have training in the morning; I should go."

"Stop by anytime," Diane said with a knowing wink as she showed them out.

Candide was sitting at the table with Hornisham when they returned. Ginny headed off and Harry took a seat.

"Late evening," Candide observed, which Harry interpreted as her politely asking where he had been. She had been doing that more lately, which Harry suspected was on Snape's orders.

"I had some errands. To Freelander's, where he insisted on dinner, and then to Elizabeth's flat. I wanted to give her the fellowship papers right away."

"I bet she was happy," Candide said.

"Yeah," Harry said, remembering wanting to hold her. He felt vaguely floaty thinking about it.

"What's wrong?" Candide asked.

Harry glanced at his guard, knitting rhythmically as always. He maybe could use some advice. "Can we talk alone?" he asked, and Hornisham, with a formal wave, shuffled out.

Harry hesitated, fearing voicing something that might make it harder to ignore. "Nothing's wrong exactly."

"You looked like something was wrong."

"I do have a lot on my mind." He fell silent and listened to the fire licking at the wood in the hearth. "Well, maybe you can answer this. How bad is it if you feel something for someone you're not supposed to be feeling anything for?"

"Depends on if you let it get out of hand," Candide said. She sounded about how Harry expected Snape would answering that question.

"Well, but, I'm not letting it do anything. It's just happening." He kept the anger he felt out of his voice since it had nothing to do with her.

"Haven't you ever been in love?"

"Er, I don't know," Harry said, sounding difficult. "Maybe."

"Are you in love with Tonks?" She waved one of the bottles from the wall and poured Harry a sip of sherry.

"I like Tonks a lot," Harry countered, flipping the glass in his fingers with out drinking from it.

"I didn't imply that you didn't. There are two different things at work here."

"You sound like Severus. All analysis. No feelings."

She held back a smile. "You don't sound like you are ready to discuss this. Why don't we do it a month from now when you are."

"What do you think is going to happen between now and then?" Harry asked.

She had returned to the newspaper, but put it down again to say, "Do you feel closer to Tonks now than you did a month ago?"

"No," Harry admitted, feeling adrift.

"Well, then-"

Harry cut her off, defensive. "But I'm not allowed to tell her anything. No wonder she's so suspicious." Harry stopped and stood up. He swallowed the sip of sherry and sighed. "Not a surprise then, is it. Any of it."

"You mean that she doesn't trust you and you are no closer?" At Harry's nod, she said, "Doesn't sound like a surprise to me."

"I should tell her," Harry said.

"You should talk to Severus before you do."

Harry scratched his neck. "He doesn't understand."

"Oh, he does. But he wants to protect you more than he wants to make your love life work out."

Harry stalked off to bed, feeling grumpy.

Training the next day only reinforced Harry's worries about the Snape he left behind with no protection. Worse yet, he remembered clearly that he himself had demanded that Fudge arrest all the Death Eaters. Maybe he should not have done that. When he next woke in the middle of a dream of trying to fight without a wand, it felt like a hammer pounding the idea that something must be done firmly into his skull.

Harry rolled over in bed, determined to figure out a way to return and check on Snape, and the dream did not wake him again.

During field work with Rodgers on Friday afternoon, they were called to Diagon Alley for a fire at Eeylops Emporium. The Ministry swarmed in mass numbers onto the scene and put out the fire quickly, rescued the soot-dusted owls, as well as masked the smoke as it rose up into Muggle London.

"Send someone to liaison with the Muggles," Mr. Weasley said to Rodgers. "Just in case. In broad daylight like this, it won't go missed." And indeed, Muggle sirens could be heard, echoing over the buildings.

"Find the owner," Mr. Weasley ordered. "I want to talk to him, at the Ministry. Get an Auror posted at his house and bring him in."

Things were still chaotic when Harry was sent home, to his dismay, right before the shop owner was questioned. Harry had been plotting while he trailed his trainer through the confusion, commands and patrol, and felt calm sitting at home on the couch, now that he had a plan of action for the other Snape. He slept well that night for the first time in a long while.

Saturday, while Vineet was there for guard duty and after Candide had departed for work, Harry said, "I have a proposition for you."

Harry stared at Vineet's grim countenance and plowed on, "I have something I need to do that I don't want anyone to know about and you should go see Hermione. So, this is my idea: I'll do my thing and you do yours and we'll meet back here in four hours."

Vineet replied, "That would not be very dutiful of me, leaving you."

"I'm going to be far out of range of whomever is trying to kill me, believe me."

Vineet stared at him. He wavered visibly.

"Vishnu, at least go and talk to Hermione. She's as unhappy as you are. Half her last letter was spent asking about you." Harry could remember being stunned by Hermione's admission of being in love with a married man, but that was when his marriage was working out. It mattered less now than he would have previously imagined it could. In a more just reality they would be free to be with each other. And Hermione's charms would hold for days instead of minutes. "At least talk to her."

"And when I return and you do not, what shall I tell your adoptive father, whom I have no interest in offending?"

He had him; Harry could tell. He was a beaten man and Harry was pained to witness it. Something had to change, and he trusted Hermione to handle his fellow with her considerate care, whatever the result of his visiting. "Tell him I've gone to Latvia. He'll know what that means. But don't say anything if I'm back here on schedule."

Vineet thought for a minute but then stood and bowed. "I wish to trust that you know what you are doing. And if I am going to break with rules and traditions I feel less obligation to stick with others. But do, please, be back here when you say. I will be unforgiving with myself later, I am certain, even though I am uncaring right now."

"I'll be back here," Harry assured him. "Go and get yourself straightened out." He called out to Vineet before he could make it to the Floo in the dining room. "Oh, don't tell Hermione you left your guard duty. She'd be more dangerous than Severus upon learning that."

Vineet bowed, and stepped through the door. A moment later the rush of the Floo network sounded and Harry went into motion. Up in his room he used the strongest warming charm he could on his hearth stone, he repeated it until the floor creaked as it expanded. He was confident that it would remain warm for the necessary time. He then put out the fire, so he had more space, knowing that if he put it out Winky would not re-kindle it until he or Snape re-lit it.

Harry took a deep breath. He could not resist what he was planning to do. Once he had fixed his mind on this path, he would go mad with ongoing worry if he tried to drop it again. He would end up like Vineet, hopeless at being unable to take action. He closed his eyes and dropped through the floor.

- 888 -

Harry arrived in the Hogwart's dungeon and awoke before a fire burning low in the empty Potions classroom. By the time he could move, he ached everywhere from the cold. Initially, the best he could manage was to roll over to warm his other side, and he only really got moving when he smelled what must be his robes smoldering.

With a creak of his spine and a groan Harry rolled to sit up and slapped at his robes where smoke twined off them. Part of him imagined that at least if he caught fire, he would be warm again, but his better sense prevailed . . . just barely. With ungainly movements, he rose to his feet and swayed before stumbling to the door. He checked the corridor and slipped down to Snape's office, but the door was barred with Ministry Department of Law Enforcement Tape. Harry blinked at this with dread blossoming in his chest strongly enough to paralyze him while he adjusted to the notion. He did not move until voices approached. He slipped into the Dark Plane and stood thinking. He could seek out McGonagall for information, but he wanted to avoid the watchful paintings in her tower. He slipped into Hogsmeade instead.

In the alley beside the Hogs Head, Harry applied a disguise, the best he could do quickly with no mirror and given that he could not quite straighten his cold-stiff spine. He applied a long white beard and hair and aged his face, essentially putting on the Dumbledore disguise he had used the previous Halloween. He stroked his face and, deciding it felt all right, headed around to the door of the seedy wizard pub to see what he could learn about recent events here.

Inside the pub a burly, bald man stood wiping down the bar, deep-set eyes nearly hidden under his long eyebrows. He stared at Harry along with everyone else. All conversation had stopped when the door opened. Harry limped up to the bar, not needing much fakery to manage this and ordered a butterbeer with a raspy, weak voice.

The bartender laughed mockingly but he fetched a dusty old bottle and opened it with his teeth before plonking it down. Harry tossed two Sickles on the bar, saying, "Use the change to buy a few rags that are only decade old."

Harry picked up his drink and wandered to an empty table, on the way scooping up off the end of the bar what he had come for: a ragged pile of old Daily Prophets.

As he pulled out a chair, nearly unbalancing himself, a smattering of conversation resumed, but before he could sit, Harry had to reach for his wand as his skin prickled with a curse warning. Harry put up a Modulated Block to avoid sending the reflected curse around the room. It had only been a Tripping Curse, but it raised Harry's ire. He disarmed the oversized, hooded man, which brought the man to his drunken feet.

The room's conversations stopped again with a special sound-absorbing kind of silence. Harry tauntingly held out the man's gummy wand with his fingertips as one might a dead rodent. "That was foolish," Harry said, still trying to sound old. The man tossed off his hood, revealing Goyle, Harry's old schoolmate. He had grown a bit in all dimensions, but mostly around the middle. His robes had split at the sides to make room. Harry threw his wand at him and Goyle had to struggle to bend far enough to pick it up.

"Do that again, I'll use it for kindling rather than returning it," Harry snapped.

The conversations resumed immediately this time, attention pointedly redirecting off him. Harry sat down and sorted through the papers, requiring little time to find what he needed because the papers had been left refolded and flattened to the articles most of interest to the locals. A sequence of grim headlines and pictures showed Snape being investigated, then dragged out of the castle. Harry squinted at the photograph of his actual arrest but in the poor pub light could not see if anyone had come to his defense.

During more flipping through the stack for the most recent issues, Harry learned that Snape's trial was in five days and he was being held in the Ministry dungeon. A sidebar to this article described overdue Ministry plans to finally rebuild Azkaban after so many years of simply cursing those found guilty of minor infractions so they lost the use of a limb for a year, or simply executing those found guilty of anything serious. The sharp reduction in the wizarding population brought about by this policy was growing worrisome, according to the author of the article.

Harry stacked the papers back together, partly to hide what he had been looking at, partly to stall while plotting. He tossed back the remainder of his flat butterbeer and Disapparated away.

Author's Notes: Yes, cruel cut-point, but on the upside, most of 17 is written as a result.

Next: Chapter 17

Wary, glancing at the door repeatedly from his ungainly position, Rodgers said, "You think that's the only way to initiate an alarm?"

"It'll buy time." Harry said easily, unperturbed. "Funny, regulations 721 through 724 of the Code for Handling Prisoners states that Magical Suppression Barriers shall not be removed from the Ministry Holding Area except in cases of repair or difficult prisoner movement." Harry waved his wand at Rodgers as though taking him to task. "It's your own damn fault I can do that."

Rodgers blinked at him, caught completely off-guard by having rules quoted at him. He recovered his bluster. "You don't stand a chance, Potter. . . or whoever you are."

Chapter 17: Reserve Rescue
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Chapter 17 — Reserve Rescue

With wand drawn Harry slipped silently into the Ministry of Magic dungeon. He peered in both directions down the low-ceilinged, dank-aired corridor, at the rows of doors, each with a small barred window set near the top. Harry had to stand on tip-toe, grazing his head on the damp ceiling, to see the whole of the cell inside. He popped up on his toes to look into the nearest two but saw only a white-haired witch and an empty cell. His striding forward to check the next cells was halted by an unearthly chill penetrating his already cold-weary bones. The light dimmed on the crossing corridor ahead of him. Harry closed his eyes and tried to find the Dementor in his mind, but he had long lost the connection to them. Still, he thought he felt some strange presence. Go elsewhere, Harry commanded, hoping that might work.

The approaching darkness held steady. The ice ceased to fork and spread over the wall ahead. Harry quickly checked the next few cells, but retreated when he felt the dismal presence approaching again. Harry ducked around the closest corner where new cells had been installed, resulting in a dungeon far larger than the one he knew in his Plane. The Dementor continued to drift closer. Harry hesitated using a Patronus for fear it would set off an alarm. He tried again with his mind to distract the creature but only encouraged its curiosity, apparently, because it sped up.

Bouncing on his toes as he ran, Harry checked the cells along this wing, putting needed space between himself and clawing unhappiness. He skidded to a halt after peeking in the second-to-last cell on the right, and looked in again. The figure hunched over its knees was painfully familiar. Harry slipped inside via the Dark Plane and stood with his back pressed to the wall beside the door. The occupant of the room did not stir. Harry raised his wand, preparing a Patronus Charm as the air grew depressing and sucked at the already sparse light.

The Dementor's skeletal hand drifted between the bars of the little window on the door and grabbed hold of one bar. Harry shivered and had to cover his mouth to keep his teeth from clattering. Hopelessness threatened him. Another skeletal hand wrapped around another bar, but the Dementor itself could not enter the cell, apparently, because it approached no more than that. Closing his eyes, Harry found warmth inside his memories. The warmth of being wrapped up in a blissful blanket and kept safe.

Harry opened his eyes. The Dementor still grasped the bars, but the terrible unhappiness had loosed its hold on him. He relaxed a little and studied Snape, his attention caught by one hand twitching where it hung off the stone bench. It was unlikely that he slept deeply because he sat slouched awkwardly, head resting partly on his own propped up knees and partly on the wall. The position did not look at all comfortable. His hair stuck up in strange directions, accentuating his odd pose.

Snape's hand twitched again and he made a small noise of distress. The Dementor rattled the bars and Snape's head jerked. Harry readied a Patronus but tried just a moment more to avoid using it. He closed his eyes and sought out the green world where he had once found the Dementors. Go away, Harry commanded. Feed elsewhere, he insisted, imaging his own hope as a shield in that world where it would go undetected.

One-by-one, the Dementor's long digits released the bars and it retreated, leaving a puff of frozen air drifting in the cell. Relief and warmth flowed into Harry's body.

Harry stepped forward and crouched beside the bench, intending to rest a hand on Snape's shoulder to rouse him, but his hand froze in space halfway there. From this angle Harry could see bruises mottling the side of Snape's face and neck and he could also see that the reason his hair was so matted was it was pressed into shape by dried blood.

Harry swallowed against the sick rising to his throat.

"Severus?" Harry whispered.

Snape jumped, not really asleep, his reaction instantaneous. He squinted at Harry, breath held, but then looked away again, resting his head on his knee. Harry blinked in confusion at being ignored. After a glance behind him and careful listening for any approach, Harry asked, "Who did this to you?"

Still no response.


Harry shifted his feet where he crouched, thought of only one possibility for being ignored, and said, "I'm not a hallucination."

Snape raised his marred and bloodied head but did not look over, just stared straight at something to the right of the cell door.

Mood fuelled by relief that he had come to this place, Harry continued more amiably, "I'm quite certain hallucinations don't ever bring up the topic of whether or not they are, in fact, hallucinations."

Snape's head turned a quarter of the way in Harry's direction. This showed off the laceration to his scalp that had bled so copiously.

Harry again: "The Ministry must be a corrupt wreck to let this happen. Why did they do this to you?"

Snape swallowed hard in preparation for talking. "I told them. They wanted to know where the Dark Lord was. I told them," he repeated in a litany. His shoulder spasmed. "If this is a trick . . . it does not matter. I've told them."

Harry placed his hand on Snape's shoulder and felt a tinge of aversion through his arm. "Someone used a Cruciatus on you. Did someone from the Ministry do that?"

Snape did not respond. Harry reached a hand to his neck and felt for the tangled heat of the curse. It was not as bad as he feared, but the curse's tiny tendrils seethed, menacing with the threat of never fully letting go, of growing slowly worse forever. Harry pushed the curse down and cooled the heat of it fighting him, pressed it down and cooled it, repeating this back and forth until he gained ground. Snape's breathing grew shallow and rapid, worrisome, but it could just be a reaction to utter release from agony.

The curse ceased heating and reweaving and Harry dropped his hand. Eyes much clearer, Snape stared at him with the same stunned scrutiny he had the last time Harry had seen him. With slow care, Snape straightened and leaned back against the wall to stare at Harry more easily. His left sleeve had been torn free at the shoulder and hung like a crooked cape at his side. Harry noticed that his left forearm had a red X slashed in it.

Harry took hold of Snape's wrist and touched his wand to each of the wounds to heal them. He did not let go immediately after lowering his wand. Something was vibrating inside of him, something he did not like the feel of. Snape's arm was cursed, but worse than that, it called to something at his core, somewhere just inside his spine. His thumb tingled where it pressed on the cords of Snape's wrist. Harry moved his thumb and the resonance intensified. Harry pushed at it the way he had with the Crucio remnants and Snape's mark flared faint pink before fading to white and disappearing again.

Snape tried to tug his arm away, but Harry held fast.

"Do you regret joining him?" Harry asked.

"Regret?" Snape uttered. "I regret, at this moment, literally everything."

"You wanted him gone though, didn't you?" Harry persisted, feeling for the outlines of the cursed Mark under Snape's skin. Coming here may have been a mistake, if loyalty to Dumbledore was all that had driven Snape's actions. Harry needed to know. "It's better with him gone," Harry prompted.

"Better for everyone but myself," Snape grumbled. "But yes, better. I make a poor martyr, though."

"You told me not to give you away. Maybe I should have. Maybe I could have protected you. I could vouch for you now; it's not too late." Harry was not certain at all that he could arrange to return for the trial, but something had to be done.

"That would not have worked. Not being associated with you has saved me no small amount of interrogation. They tried to question me about you, but they did not know I had assisted you and I could truthfully tell them that I do not particularly like your family."

"Or me," Harry finished for him. Snape's gaze grew wary. "You don't have to like me," Harry assured him. "But you do have to wish you never joined him."

"How could I not wish that?" Snape snapped hoarsely at him. "There have been a few amenities, certainly, but . . ." He diverted his eyes. "Such a mistake I made," he whispered, sounding drained and beaten.

"Don't make any loud noises," Harry said and pressed down with his thumb. Snape hissed and his leg flailed in pain but an instant later the skull and snake image on his arm rose up through his skin and, smoking, faded to ash, which immediately smeared. Harry let go.

Snape held his arm up to better peer at it. "They would hardly notice my screaming here," he murmured. He brushed off the ash and stared some more. Without lowering his arm, Snape asked, "What are you?"

Harry stood and his knees thanked him for it. "I'm part Voldemort, remember?"

Snape flinched at the name and Harry said, "Come now. He's dead. The real question is what do you want to do?"

Snape sneered at him. "And my options would be?"

"I can vouch for you or I take you away from here. Somewhere far away."

Snape swayed as much as one sitting propped against a wall could. "You really are a hallucination. I am finally losing my mind." He swallowed. "If you can take me away from here or, barring my questionable sanity, drive me well enough insane that I do not care that I am still here . . . I would do nearly anything in my measly, miserable power . . . for you. But I have nothing."

"You don't have to do anything except tell me where you want to go."

"Damn you, again," Snape muttered, building to a snarl that transformed his marred face. "Stop giving me hope."

A clang echoed in from far away, interrupting Snape's tormented reply. Footsteps approached. Snape reflexively pressed his back fully against the wall, bracing his hands on the stone bench.

"Recognize the footsteps?" Harry asked, thinking belatedly that he recognized them as well.

"One of the Aurors is coming. Right bastard. His miserable, domineering wife torments him all night and he comes in here most days to take it out on me."

Harry pressed himself against the wall beside the door and tapped himself with an Obsfucation Charm. "Let's do this right," Harry said, thinking ahead to freeing Snape as completely as possible. "Convince him to test for your mark."

Keys sounded in the lock and the cords in Snape's thin neck stood out through his pale skin. He only flinched faintly when the lock sparkled and slammed clear, making Harry marvel at his indomitable will.

Rodgers strode in with a cloying swagger to his step. Snape glared at him, unblinking.

"You're looking better today," Rodgers said with mixed feeling.

Snape said, "I'm finally enjoying the many amenities of your fine establishment."

Rodgers laughed cruelly. "We can change that." His wand twitched at his side, and Harry raised his but waited for a real move.

Snape sneered, restricted from fully showing it by the swollen bruises on his face, "Don't you get tired of this?"

"Tired of getting even with your kind. Never. You're a contamination on the wizarding world and need to be dealt with properly, which means without mercy."

"'My kind'? And what kind would that be?" Snape asked, pulling forth his annoyed professor voice.

"You are an idiot or think me one."

Snape crossed his arms and raised his chin. "No, really, I'd like to hear you say it."

"The Death Eater kind of evil," Rodgers said, leaning forward and speaking low and slow.

"Oh really. And you are certain I am one, are you?"

This gave Rodgers pause. "Everyone knows it. You-Know-Who made no secret of it."

"You were privy to his memos, then?" Snape asked sarcastically, and Harry had to suppress a snigger.

Angry now, Rodgers said, "It is easy enough to check." He used a shackling spell to jerk Snape's arms forward and hold them there, fixed in mid-air. With no gentleness he rolled Snape's left arm over and stabbed his wand against flesh with a Revelatio. Nothing happened so he repeated it, tugging hard enough on Snape's arm to pull him forward off the wall. "It's a trick," Rodgers snarled, stepping back, which canceled the untethered shackling spell.

"Is it?" Snape asked. "I do believe that it is impossible to remove a Mark, is it not?"

Rodgers' shoulders fell and then he whipped his wand up aggressively. "Wait a minute, what happened to the wounds on that arm?" He started to spell something nasty, Harry could feel the cursedness of it. Harry beat him at it, using a whip charm to snag his wand, which sent the half-formed curse sizzling over the walls and ceiling like a firework.

Rodgers spun and leapt bodily at Harry, but Harry had his fist ready and being mostly invisible gave him a huge advantage. He leveled Rodgers with a punch to the jaw.

"Ouch," Harry said, shaking his hand. "Damn that smarts."

Rodgers was rolling to get to his feet. Left handed, Harry put him in a body bind and then tapped himself on the head to remove the Obsfucation.

Rodgers gaped up at Harry as he stepped over to stand above him. "Potter?!" He opened his mouth wide to shout something more, and Harry hit the door with a Silencing charm, then a series of Impenetrable Charms.

Wary, glancing at the door repeatedly from his ungainly position, Rodgers said, "You think that's the only way to initiate an alarm?"

"It'll buy time." Harry said easily, unperturbed. "Funny, regulations 721 through 724 of the Code for Handling Prisoners states that Magical Suppression Barriers shall not be removed from the Ministry Holding Area except in cases of repair or difficult prisoner movement." Harry waved his wand at Rodgers as though taking him to task. "It's your own damn fault I can do that."

Rodgers blinked at him, caught completely off-guard by having rules read at him. He recovered his bluster. "You don't stand a chance, Potter. . . or whoever you are."

"Oh, I'm Harry Potter," Harry said, bending over him. "See the scar?"

The door rattled.

"He managed an alarm," Snape whispered.

"You're surrounded," Rodgers stated smugly.

Harry went on, "Oh, but what you fail to realize is I'm at my best when things seem bleakest. And I have something to say to you before I go. You talk big about fighting evil, but I have bad news for you." Harry lowered his wand till it touched Rodgers' neck. He definitely had the man's full attention. "You are the evil. You're not an Auror; you're a bully. And if the Ministry is this corrupt there is no hope for it. This man isn't the enemy . . . you are."

The door began to glow and sparkle. "Potter . . ." Snape warned.

Harry raised his hand to him. "Give me your arm." Snape did and Harry grabbed hold firmly. "Brace yourself." The door began to fall inward. Harry hit it with a blasting curse and grunts of pain could be heard on the other side of it when it slammed home into place. Harry re-aimed his wand at Rodgers. "You could be more than this. But all you are is part of the problem. At least get a divorce . . . you'd be happier."

With that, he pulled the two of them into the Dark Plane.

Snape collapsed when they arrived and Harry thought him dead, the way he went so totally, floppily limp. Heart pounding, and berating himself for not thinking about the strain that would cause, Harry Apparated away from the creatures piling in their direction. He arrived in another area, trying to think quickly. He dropped his burden to the grey, dusty ground and knelt beside him. Snape was breathing, but shallowly, and he was nearly as gray as the dust behind him. Harry did not want to pull Snape through the other side again, worried it would finish him off. He raised his wand and tried a barrier, but it sizzled and cracked. He put his wand away and waited for the creatures to scuttle over, prepared to defend both of them until Snape recovered sufficiently.

Harry did not wait long. The creatures were soon bucking and snarling in a circle about ten feet in diameter. One giant rat-like thing with glistening scales grabbed at Snape's shoe, and Harry had to snarl at it to get it to let loose.

A stand-off ensued. Harry glared at all of the creatures and they glared, circled and crawled over their fellows in an effort to get as close as possible, yet not too close. Harry relaxed marginally and the creatures slowed. Harry froze, breath held. He relaxed more. The creatures, bent their heads and tried to sulk in closer. Harry turned his head side to side and narrowed his eyes at all of them. "Don't you dare," he said. They stepped back slowly and waited, watchful.

Harry sighed. He did not want to take his eyes off the creatures, so he used his hand to shake Snape's shoulder and failing to get a response to that, to check his breathing. Thinking about how vulnerable he was made the creatures move in closer. Harry glared at them again and they backed off again. He sighed into the stale air and held tight to that feeling of superiority.

Harry did not imagine that he could survive sitting there for ten minutes like that, but he did; he managed a draw with the creatures, which counted as a win. Snape muttered something and Harry commanded, "Keep your eyes closed. Feeling all right?"

"I've felt better," came the faint reply.

Harry decided that would have to be good enough and he Apparated them and pulled them through the dust into the only spot he could think of where Snape could have time to recover undisturbed.

A dusting of snow covered cold-stiff grass. Snape blinked in the grey-orange sunlight as he was lifted to kneel on the unyielding grass. "Where the devil are we?" He wrapped his arms around himself as he was released to sway slowly.

Harry moved along the line of huts until he was sure which was which. The snow bore no tracks and no smoke issued from anywhere; the village had been deserted for the season, as he'd hoped. "In here," he said, tossing open the door of Per's hut where Harry had stayed before on his visit to get instruction from the Shaman.

While Snape crawled gingerly inside, Harry fetched wood and quickly cleared the smoke-hole, adjusting the skin over it for the prevailing wind with practiced ease. Inside he ignited a roaring fire with a twitch of his wand. Snape sat with his arms hitched around his knees, looking only slightly better than when Harry had found him. With surprising force bordering on anger, Snape said, "You didn't answer my question."

"We're in Finland, or Norway, er, north of the Arctic Circle anyway."

"That explains the snow and the exceptionally grim sun," he stated, sounding dubious and fatefully bleak.

"I can take you back to the Ministry," Harry threateningly teased.

"Dying here would be preferable."

Harry was running out of time. "Here, take Rodgers' wand. You can hole up here until you've recovered and then go somewhere and start over again."

That notion appeared to be foreign to Snape because he did not react to it. He stared at the wand in great detail before pocketing it.

"You'll have plenty of time to think about it," Harry assured him, his mind coming up with ideas which might work quickly enough for him to get back before his hearthstone cooled and Vineet arrived. "Let me fetch you supplies. Oh, and if you see a wolf, it might be a shaman. In any event, watch out because they go for the hands first."

Harry stood, remaining hunched because of the roof branches, and Snape watched him with a stupefied expression. "I'll be back," Harry assured him.

Harry arrived a quarter-mile from the Burrow, but what he found astonished him. The same basic house was there, but it had been built onto in all directions, including precariously sideways on the first and second floors, and several outbuildings had been added around it. It was nearly a village. A fifteen-foot wrought-iron fence enclosed the place and it sparkled, heavily charmed. Harry walked around to the front gate and looked for a bell pull. He found a Griffin-head knocker instead and used that. From within the ivy growing thickly on the gate an eyeball popped open and peered around. A pair of lips appeared next, strangely off to the side rather than below the eyeball. "Who is it?" a voice that could be Mrs. Weasley's asked.

Harry stepped sideways within view of the eyeball. "It's Harry Potter, I—" He did not get to finish his request as the lips let out a cry of surprise. The lips muttered rapidly then fell silent. Harry waited, the breeze blowing his hair around. The eyeball moved again and jerked in surprise and the gate clicked open. Four people approached across the yard as the gate swung wide. Two others came running from elsewhere.

Harry stepped inside a few strides, but given the ivy that slithered to block his path and the way the gnomes crept around with miniature pitchforks, he decided to wait.

He was soon surrounded. "Harry Potter?" Bill asked him in disbelief. The twins slapped him on the back, stiff-armed as though their elbows were unable to bend. Ginny stepped through the pack when it eased. She too whispered his name in a way that tore at Harry for his deception.

Harry quickly said, "I'm sorry I can't stay long. But I need some help."

Mrs. Weasley had arrived, wand out, tied-back hair completely grey. "Out of the way. Out of the way." She gave Harry a quick hug. "Come inside, dear."

Harry wanted to ask where Ron was, but then wondered if he really wanted to know. His question was answered when he came in and found Ron in a floating chair, legs locked straight.

"Cursed, you know," he said, to Harry's staring. Adding: "That incident in the Atrium with the elves . . . maybe you heard about it?"

Rather than answer, Harry asked, "How are you doing?"

Ron shrugged. "I try not to drive Mum crazy. She's got enough on her hands with Fred and George being in and out of curse-punishment." He was about to ask something else. Harry could see in his friend's eyes and knew that he'd have to make up a lie to answer it. The question ballooned in Ron, painful and laden with the past.

Mrs. Weasley turned Harry around before Ron could say anything. "Bill said you need help and are in a hurry, dear; what is it you need?"

Harry shook himself from the notion of a coldly efficient Molly Weasley. "I need supplies. Food and a warm cloak. Very warm gloves, for flying in the cold. And a broomstick if you can spare it. Doesn't have to be fast so much as reliable."

The room went into motion, clearly accustomed to working in a panic as a group. Harry watched, moving forward when a charmed sack was produced, by joint magic of the stiff-armed twins, for holding everything. Cans and jars went into it until Harry lost count. The evening pot roast went in as well as plates and napkins and even the tablecloth.

Harry's deception on top of their generosity was nearly killing him. "I don't know how to repay you for this," he said, pain clear in his voice.

"No need," someone snapped fiercely, and others shook their heads in support.

Harry realized how to do it. He reached over to where Ron floated, holding jars of pickled beets that waited to be packed up. He grabbed Ron's shin and felt the curse coarse up sickeningly up his arm. Eyes watering, he pushed the curse away and Ron's leg bent, limp, and he gave a cry of surprise that brought everyone to a halt. Harry un-cursed Ron's other leg, and shook out his prickling hand. Ron jumped down from the chair and grabbed Harry's arm in gratitude.

"Can't be seen like that," Bill pointed out to his brother.

"I don't care. I'll hide in the house."

"Us next?" one of the twins sheepishly asked.

Household uncursed, Harry bundled the lip of the small sack with the twine handed to him and tossed it easily over his shoulder.

"You can't even stay a little while more?" Ginny asked. "We want to hear what happened. We all thought you were dead. What did Dumbledore do? Where have you been?"

Harry peered around their pale, red-framed faces. "I'm sorry. I can't explain, as much as I'd like to. I miss you all terribly but it . . . it just isn't possible."

"Thanks for getting rid of Ole-He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Mentioned," one of the twins said.

"That was the easy part. All of you have the hard part of cleaning up the Ministry."

"That's for certain," Mrs. Weasley coldly agreed, again surprising Harry.

Harry looked them all over again as he looped the cloak over his arm and took up the battered broomstick. "Thanks. I won't forget you."

A chorus of well-wishing followed Harry to the door. "Take it easy, Potter." "Stop in any time." "Don't let the Trolls eat you."

Harry waved several times as he departed, and waited until he was out of view to disappear.

Back in the Arctic, he quietly set the sack down in the stone-floored kitchen area so as not to awaken Snape, who was curled up, sleeping, looking distressingly half dead. Harry rested the broom in the ceiling of the hut and draped the cloak over Snape, which woke him. He sat up quickly, but then winced severely.

"At the risk of sounding ungrateful . . . I hope you have food," Snape said through clenched teeth.

Harry reached into the sack and pulled out the tablecloth, placesetting and the roast. "Here. Compliments of the Weasleys."

Snape had taken up the fork and knife but at this last pronouncement, he stared, eyes glazed, at the food, seeming undone. Something compelled him to move, perhaps primeval hunger and, shakily, he made a jagged slice in the roast. He cleared his throat and said, "I do not think I have ever been brought so low, so humbled, as this moment."

"It's good for you," Harry said. "Builds character."

Snape snorted, but his mouth relaxed as though, minus the bruises, he might have smiled, or at least smirked.

Harry said, "Get better, and move on, somewhere far from England. Forget everything and start over again. Without the Mark no one can prove who you are."

Snape swallowed and cut another generous, juice leeching bite. "Why are you doing this?"

Harry replied, "I have my reasons. You don't need to know them if you are benefiting from them."

Snape took another bite and said, "Benefactors are far more dangerous than enemies. They expect something in return. Enemies just expect you to be yourself."

"I don't want anything from you but that you stay out of trouble so I can focus on what I need to do."

"And what might that be . . . mastering the Universe?" Snape asked.

"I'm just doing what everyone does. Trying to get by, stay out of trouble, learn some magic. Nothing unusual."

Eating had given Snape his old attitude back. "Why do I find that highly doubtful?"

Harry warned, "This time I'm really not coming back."

"I believed you the last time," Snape said, falling quiet and strained again. "Thank you for lying."

"You're welcome. Just make something out of this second chance, all right? Then we're even."

"Third chance."

"Who's counting?"

- 888 -

Vineet stopped at the base of the steps to Hogwarts castle. The path was familiar from his round of attenuation lessons the previous school year and habit had carried him well until the grass became step.

He was behaving like someone other than himself and rather than finding that alarming, he found it a relief. A gust of wind blew the great front doors against the latch, and that felt like a signal. He stepped up and slipped inside, tugging the door closed hard behind him against the weather. In contrast it was sultry inside. A fire burned vigorously in the Entrance Hall hearth. Students sat on the Grand Staircase, one group sharing notes, another play-fighting over something of value.

"Vishnu, is it not?" a familiar voice said, drawing Vineet from ascending the stairs upward.

Vineet turned to McGonagall and bowed formally, hands pressed together.

"Your lessons with Sinistra have not resumed, have they?"

"No, this is a visit," Vineet said, wondering now if he were breaking school protocol that he had not needed to learn last time. Surely there were rules about visitors, even if no one had mentioned them to him before. Vineet felt dizzy with a remote part of him wishing to be sent away from this place.

She winked at him, dashing the hopes of that last sparkle of righteousness. "It's not a problem, young man. I do keep things a little more secure here than perhaps the school has historically been. I find as soon as I relax the habit for great care, something transpires to necessitate a return to previous security. But Ministry employees and certainly Auror apprentices are always welcome." She held back her sleeve to gesture to the stairs. "Please," she said, sounding eager for him to continue on.

Vineet bowed just with his head this time and mounted the staircase.

McGonagall followed along with him as he travelled through the castle. Beyond the Entrance Hall the corridors held chilly air and he was glad he had not shucked his cloak. McGonagall made slow elegant small talk as they went.

Just before the door to Hermione's office, when Vineet wished for her to be absent when he knocked, she held out a hand to the door latch and held fast. Quietly, she said, "I'm very glad you're here." With that she pushed the latch and slipped away.

The door creaked open an inch and Vineet, reeling from the way the world was conspiring to channel him along this path, knocked on the dense wood of the ajar door.

Hermione's voice sounded higher pitched than normal as she called that whoever it was could enter. She was working at something with a long quill. She looked up and held still in surprise before putting the quill on the stand beside the inkwell and pushing the sheet away by the edges.

"Hi," she said.

"I wished to speak with you; if that is possible," Vineet said, finding refuge in that limited intent.

"Close the door. Come on in," she said, restraining pleasure behind standard words. She fidgeted but then stood and came around the desk.

They met in the middle of the room between the two student desks facing her larger one.

"It's good to see you again so soon," she said, pained but with eyes glowing. She glanced around, perhaps for a normal chair to offer, considered the chairs lined up against the wall, then turned away from them. Instead, she simply pulled him down into a kiss.

His wet cloak hung forward over his shoulders, feeling cold and leaden trapped between them. He pulled away long enough to drop it to the floor and wrap her up so he could feel every square inch of warmth where they touched.

- 888 -

Harry sat up when the latent heat of his hearthstone seeped fully into his bones. He rubbed his eyes and glanced around his blessedly quiet and familiar room. His heart ached a bit from seeing Snape in that tortured state, but he had succeeded, and that let him breathe freely. He sat with his back to the dark hearth, forcing himself to pledge to not return there again. This time he truly had done all he could. Everything else would have to take care of itself. He wanted to believe in his own pledge but felt doubt nonetheless.

When Vineet returned in the Floo, Harry, who had arrived with a comfortable fifteen minutes to spare, was lounging on the couch with tea spread on a nearby tray.

"Hungry?" Harry asked his friend.

Vineet shook his head and took the couch opposite. He appeared a little shell shocked but far more relaxed and present than before.

"How did it go?" Harry asked.

"I think we reached an understanding."

"That's good. What was that?"

Vineet hesitated, struggled to explain, then said, "I don't have words for it."

Harry rubbed away his instant grin.

"And your errand?" Vineet asked, drawing outside himself in a sign of improved disposition.

"Good. I'm glad I took care of it. It was almost too late. But it's done now."

Vineet clasped his hands together. "May I ask if it involved anything illegal?"

"No," Harry immediately replied, thinking there were no rules about inter-dimensional travel. But then he thought again about springing a prisoner from the Ministry dungeon. "Well . . . it depends on whose rules apply."

Vineet said, "I only ask because I wonder how seriously I need to take making up a story in the future."

"You won't need to make up a story," Harry assured him. "I didn't break any of this Ministry's rules."

"Just those of a different Ministry?"

"Something along those lines," Harry said.

"The Latvian Ministry's rules, perhaps?"

"I helped out a friend who was in dire straits. That's all. You're one to suddenly care about the rules," Harry finally stopped resisting pointing out.

"I am trying to return to the habit as quickly as possible. I should not have let you convince me to leave you untended. I was weaker than I wished to be when you suggested it. But that is no excuse."

"Sorry about that. I think I took advantage of you, even if everything worked out."

Vineet bowed acceptance of Harry's apology and they fell into other topics. They were still sitting there discussing minor things when Snape arrived home early for dinner.

"Candide hasn't returned from work," Harry explained. "We're just having an easy Saturday here."

"Are you? Nice to have friends available as guards." Snape stated this flatly enough to make Harry's brow furrow. "Any other friends around this afternoon?" Snape asked.

Harry only saw the trap after it had sprung. He considered lying, contriving something with Ginny who would back him up in a pinch but could not withstand any Legilimency. Harry exhaled broadly and said, "No."

"Mr. Abhayananda, I will take over for the evening; if you would leave us alone."

Vineet stood and gave a low bow. "It will not happen again."

"I am most assured of that already," Snape stated. "On that note, Headmistress McGonagall wanted you to know that you can visit the school anytime and in fact wishes to know if you would like to teach a session on Asian magic."

Vineet stopped and bowed again before exiting with a clear line of relief to his posture.

Snape stood stock still until he and Harry were alone. "You are not to shake your guard. You are grounded for the week."

Harry frowned. "What does that entail?"

"It means you will be here in this house unless you have official duties to attend to. No pubs, friends who aren't assigned guards, or nights at Ms. Tonks' flat." Snape flicked his cloak and sat across from Harry. "I fear asking what you were doing."

"Don't ask, then," Harry quipped.

Snape's brow arched. "At the risk of sounding the bad parent, you were sloppy about covering yourself as well. I was certain to hear that your fellow was at Hogwarts this afternoon. He made no secret of his presence." He sat back, satisfied with this critique. "Have you shaken your guard previously?"

Harry wanted to be truthful where he could. "Once. To sneak into the Department of Mysteries. Tonks let me off for a few hours when I asked. I wanted to see what was going on there."

"Ms. Tonks as well. Goodness, is there no one to rely on at that place?"

Snape stood with a huff and slipped over to the drawing room doorway. "I hope you had plans this evening . . ."

"You hope I did?" Harry asked, confused.

"Yes," Snape retorted dryly, "So that you must cancel them." He disappeared into the next room.

Harry sighed, feeling bemused by getting into trouble with Snape after saving Snape. But he was loath to admit what he had been doing. Harry called down his owl to send a message to Ron telling him he would miss Sunday dinner at the Burrow. While he sat with quill poised, trying to decide whether to admit he was in trouble, Snape wandered back through.

He stopped and said, "What were you doing that required you to shake your guard?"

"Will it change my punishment if I had a good reason?"


"Then I'm not telling you." Harry dipped his quill and started to write out that he was in trouble because it was just easier to admit it instead of making something up. He finally looked back up at Snape when the other moved to lean on the back of the other couch, hands gripping tightly. They stared at each other until Harry looked down again at the letter before him. The quill had splotched ink where it rested, so he crossed out the word "trouble" and wrote it out again. Snape did not move, he stood there thinking for over a minute.

"I have a life to live," Harry said, even though this felt like a lie, given that he had used his free time to live someone else's life.

"Only if you survive to live it."

"Oh, come on," Harry complained. "You're acting like I've never been in danger before. Everyone is. I got less protection when I was eleven."

"That is not technically true; you just were unaware of the protection around you. Is that what this is about?"

"No," Harry insisted, shaking his head and abandoning his letter for the moment because he'd splotched it again. "I just have things I need to do sometimes. Why can't you just accept that?"

Snape formulated an answer before replying, "Because the possibilities engendered by your power are alarming in their scope."

Harry took a deep breath. "It's still my life," he said softly.

Snape kneaded his fingertips into his forehead in a gesture mimicking the one his alternative self used repeatedly while injured. Harry bit his lip.

"I don't mean to make things hard for you," Harry said, which was the truth, even though it did not change his will any to acknowledge it.

- 888 -

Ginny and Ron came on Sunday in response to his letter, forcing Harry to explain in a low voice that he was grounded.

"How old are you now?" Ron asked.

"It has nothing to do with that. I think I'd get grounded for shaking my guard if I were thirty. I'm afraid you can't stay," he said, when Ginny changed the topic to try to tell him something about the twins' shop.

"That's all right, Ginny's got a date tonight with his highness," Ron teased.

A blush tainted Ginny's cheeks. "It's just to the cinema."

"Aaron finally asked you out?" Harry asked, but was interrupted by Snape clearing his throat from the doorway. Harry's guardian glared at them all, arms crossed. "You have to go," Harry said, shooing his friends off.

When they were gone, he and Snape stared at each other for a few breaths before Snape returned to the main hall, leaving Harry wondering idly if he still needed him, really. In his gut he believed he did, but another voice in his head needled him mockingly that he should not stand for being treated like a child.

That evening, Harry sat in the main hall, taking notes from his books with slow, bored, grudging purpose, stalling by doodling in the margins. He doodled his pets and then the Dark Mark, remembering the ashy image of it as it emerged from the alternative Snape's arm, remembering how it had called to something inside of him. If he could shed this piece of Voldemort, he would need Snape less, it occurred to him. Harry casually slipped that parchment under the next as Snape approached. He turned the page in his book and pretended to resume reading.

"I am returning to Hogwarts now," Snape stated coldly.

"All right."

Snape appeared to relent a little. "Harry . . ." he began, with more emotion, but faded out and shifted to frustrated. He sat down, hands clasped as though cold.

"Are you more worried about me than you would be if I didn't still have part of Voldemort in me?" Harry asked, since it was flitting around in his immediate thoughts.

"That has almost nothing to do with it. I assume by now you are accustomed to living as you have most all your life, with him included. No, what I fear is trouble you do not foresee, and in fact create for yourself out of earnest heroism or simple naïveté."

Harry thought about his previous day's foray and said with a touch of sheepishness, "I'm getting better at recovering from those."

"Practice does help," Snape stated wryly.

Harry wanted to tell him that he was going to inform Tonks of his powers. That he ached to tell her so she would trust him more. But before he could work himself up to it given the tension they already had, Snape returned to a more pleading attitude and said, "I have to do what I can, Harry, even at the risk of alienating you, which I see I am doing." Snape rose to his feet and stepped over to rest a hand on Harry's shoulder for a second before departing with a last goodbye to Candide.

In his absence, Harry sat staring at the doorway to the dining room, wondering again with a prickling chill across his skin if he had again landed somewhere similar but new. This time it was definitely his fault if that had happened. Perhaps every time he left he returned somewhere new. If that was the case, he was lost utterly now. But he could not ask for further reassurance without admitting he had departed once again. Harry shook his head and headed up to his room to take Kali out of her cage.

- 888 -

Ginny sat, happily eating a meal in a white-clad restaurant she could never imagine affording to read the menu of, much less order anything in. Across the neat table and crystal candlesticks, Aaron exhibited his disarming goofy gallantness as they tucked into one course after another.

Aaron gestured at their personal waiter to top up the wine glasses. "I asked Harry for permission to take you out, you know," he said.

"You what?" Ginny blurted, attracting glances from neighboring tables. The waiter, a true professional, reacted not at all. Ginny ducked her head and said, "Why did you do that?"

"He said you were like a sister," Aaron teased.

"I don't need another brother," Ginny insisted firmly. "Especially not a meddling one."

"Does Harry meddle?" Aaron asked.

Ginny drank a gulp of wine. "I don't know. Depends on what he said."

"He said he was fine with it."

Between sips she muttered, "Yeah, figures."

Aaron's eyes glittered in the candlelight. "Oh, I suspected your torch for him was still flickering a little."

"Ignore it. I try to."

Aaron, who was drinking far more than his share of the wine, held up his glass. "That's the spirit."

They lingered over the second bottle of wine and missed the last film of the evening.

Standing before the cinema, Aaron retook Ginny's arm and said, "We'll just go to my place."

Aaron's flat was a multi-level, high-ceilinged modern home with tall windows garnished by ivy shaped bars. Despite the copious windows and the November weather, the room was pleasantly warm as Aaron hung their cloaks up.

"Have a seat," he said.

"Nice place," she said.

"It's a trap," Aaron sighed.

"It is?"

He sat down beside her. "It keeps me in my mother's clutches."

"I was thinking the windows reminded me of a bird cage, actually," she said, hiding her grin.

He peered at the windows in turn. "You think so? You know the decorator my mum hired would be just the type of bloke to make a statement like that." He sighed and slipped an arm around her. "Well, it's nice to have company when stuck in a cage." He bent and kissed her fervently. And when she made a noise of surprise, he leaned back and noticed she was pressed ungainly back onto the piled throw pillows. He said, "We can move to the bedroom where it's more comfortable."

"Uh . . ." she began, putting a hand up while grasping for words.

Aaron straightened, and said, "Oh. Too soon for that, I see."

She let out a breath and sat up. "Yeah," she breathed like a huff.

This generated a raised brow. Aaron stood suddenly and said, "Let's have ice cream instead."

She managed to say, "You can eat again already?"

Aaron was digging around in the stainless steel kitchen, through the drawers and the freezer. He took out a tub of ice cream and began scooping like a man possessed.

"Here," he pushed a bowl over and straightened it neatly before her. "Chocolate sauce?"

"Uh, sure."

He fetched out a full jar and poured out a dollop.

"More than that," she said, pushing her bowl closer.

He made the white scoops swim and she said, "Stop. Thanks." She settled onto one of the tall bar stools and accepted the spoon and ate despite not being hungry.

He put things away and settled on the next stool over, behind his own bowl.

Ginny, mouth half frozen, said, "So, uh, we're having ice cream instead of . . . something else."

Bent over his bowl, he said, "Oh yeah."

"What's the problem?" she asked. "You're just too fast, is all," she added, blushing against her will.

He cleaned his spoon with his mouth and used it to accentuate his speech by waving it. "There is no such thing as slow enough with a virgin," he asserted.

"Yeah, there is," she lightly snapped.

"Not with me. I don't know what to do," he said, now sounding almost helpless.

"If you don't know what to do . . . how in the world is a virgin supposed to know what to do?"

He fell thoughtful, which he wore well because it was such an unusual expression for him. "You have a point there. But nevertheless."

She dropped her spoon into her bowl where it rattled around. "Sorry to waste your time."

Mouth full of white ice cream, he mumblingly said, "I didn't say that. What makes you say that?"

She dropped her shoulders. "I just assumed."

He swallowed and cleaned his spoon again by sucking generously on it, then relocated everything to the distant sink with a wave of his wand. "Not at all," he insisted.

"So," she said, partly to trip him up, "we can go out again?"

"Yeah. Why not. I had a good time." He propped his chin on his hand and critically peered at her. "How did you get through school . . ."

"Don't ask," she snapped, but then decided to kvetch. "It's not like there is a really big pool of possible wizard dates or anything."

"Hm." He pondered that. "I'll admit I find myself extending the acceptable age range as the years pass. So, I guess I'd have to agree. I don't remember that being a problem at Hogwarts . . . lack of opportunity, that is." He sounded debonair as well as teasing.

He then said, "If you are set, I'll take you home."

She started to go, but paused to say, "Hey, does this have anything to do with my dad?"

"What part?"

"Any of it."


"Well, that's something."

He presented her with an arm to escort her across the flat. "How about Wednesday we do something? If we knock off afternoon studies early enough we can make the kid's matinée . . ."

She cocked her arm as though to hit him with her free hand. "You are so in trouble," she threatened.

He chuckled. "Oh, come on," he said. "Lighten up. You'll be happier."

"I'm perfectly light, thank you."

At the hearth, he held out a crystal goblet to take Floo powder from. "Well, this way I can face your father easily. So perhaps it has a tiny bit to do with him."

She dropped her head, dejected. "Hm."

"Didn't you have a nice time?"

She didn't raise her head. "I had a great time." Then still staring at her shoes. "I like being around you."

"But not looking at me . . ." he teased.

"I'm horribly embarrassed here already . . . can we go?"

- 888 -

At training on Monday, Harry watched Aaron saunter in and gamely greet everyone. Vineet came in behind him, appearing more his old self, which is to say, unanimated but lacking the sad edge he had been exuding.

"How are you doing?" Harry asked him.

Vineet responded with a simple nod to the side. Rodgers hurried in and set a disorganized pile of books and notes on the front table. His presence sent a chill through Harry.

When he was called up to the front of the room, Harry tried not to show his dislike, but his seriousness generated an immediate comment.

"You don't look happy to be here, Potter," Rodgers said.

"I have a lot on my mind, sir," Harry explained.

"Not in here, you don't. One thing only." He raised his wand and hovered a mirror into place behind Harry. "We're going to try this a little differently today since some of you were a little slow last week in picking this up. I'm going to spell you in the mirror and I want you to block the reflection, not the initial casting."

"Only a few spells will work that way," Kerry Ann pointed out.

Rodgers slid his eyes to her. "I am well aware of that. Thank you," he stated tiresomely.

Harry now found their trainer's slightly obnoxious attitude impossible to ignore, rather than just annoying. And between his turns at practice, Harry pondered how different sets of circumstances could bring out different parts of someone's personality. He could easily imagine this Rodgers torturing Snape under the right circumstances, and that made him feel he already had.

"Still grim?" Rodgers teased when Harry came up again.

Harry felt like hitting him with a blasting curse but he did not so much as let his wand twitch in that direction. "Yes sir. This is serious business, isn't it? That's what you always say."

Mollified, Rodgers said, "I do say that. Well, give it another go. Wand up."

At lunchtime, Rodgers pulled Harry back into the room with the words. "Just a second, Potter."

Harry let Tridant slide by him in the doorway and the door swung closed.

Rodgers said, "You act like I offended you somehow. When I say leave it outside, I mean it."

"Yes, sir," Harry said. He avoided the man's gaze, but when the silence dragged on, he glanced up and found eyes more human than he expected.

"Something going on?" Rodgers asked.

Leave it outside. Leave it behind. Harry chanted to himself. It wasn't this man; even if this man seems perfectly capable. "Some stuff. But you're right; I should leave it outside the Ministry."

"Okay, then," Rodgers said. "Just the way you were looking at me back there, like you wanted a real fight."

Harry silently agreed that was true and rubbed his hair around. "Sorry about that."

"I don't mind you getting into the spirit of things, but there is a limit and I've seen that look enough times, but not, I confess, on the face of someone I may have to rely on."

Harry had no interest in explaining. "I'll keep it outside, sir," he insisted. And to himself, he pledged to keep an eye on Rodgers, but for now would stop assuming the worst about him.

"That's fine," Rodgers said. "But as well, if you have something you really need to say, just say it."

Harry hesitated, but said, "I'd prefer you not get personal."

"Hm." Rodgers tapped his wand on the nearby table, letting it bounce. "If it bothers you so when I harangue you about your adoptive father . . . I think that's something you need to work on. Not me." He sounded hard as he said this.

Harry did not really want to argue. This was not the real issue, even if it was something that irked him. "I just don't like it when you're cruel," Harry said, aiming closer to the real issue.

"You think the world is always nice? Oh, I forget. To you it may be."

"You must be joking," Harry said, finding new annoyance with the man before him. "Look, we don't come in here and make fun of you and your ex do we?"

This found the mark. Rodgers eyes flared with something volatile. "You aren't in charge. It's not the same."

Harry saw no alternative to continuing. "It IS all the same. Why don't you have more respect for others around you?" Harry dropped his gaze, wanting to drop the whole conversation. This tactic was not going to help anything. "I'm sorry if I'm out of line, sir. I just . . . think your not being especially considerate is a sign of . . . something else that may need attention."

"If you aren't hard enough, this world will eat you alive," Rodgers insisted, sounding as hard as anyone Harry had ever heard.

"That's not really true, sir," Harry said, quietly, calmly and insistently. "And I think I have more than enough experience to know if it weren't."

They stared at each other. Rodgers said, "Maybe you're just better than I am, Potter."

Harry replied, "I don't think so, sir. Everything we do is the result of a choice we make."

"Hmf," Rodgers breathed through his nose. With a glance up and down Harry, he said, "Well, it's lunchtime."

Author's Notes: We may just be getting back to a regular 1-2 week schedule. Hopefully.

Next: Chapter 18

Harry laughed. "Want me to read aloud?"

Aaron sat straight to peer over the rim of Harry's book. "No. I'm too far behind you." He jerked his head to stare out the darkening window, appeared to consider standing again, but sat back with his book instead.

"What is it?" Harry asked,

"I don't want to sound paranoid, but lately I feel like I'm being watched."

Chapter 18: Secrets Small and Large
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Chapter 18 — Secrets Small and Large

Harry was glad when Candide arrived home at a more normal hour and Hornisham decided to leave them alone and knit in the main hall. Harry wanted Candide's advice. She put her things away and joined him at the table, prompting dinner to sparkle in.

"You're home earlier," Harry said to open the conversation.

"Severus insisted I be."

"Hm," Harry said, forking himself pasta. "Because of me or because of you?"

She smiled faintly. "Probably both, but the excuse was you."

"I didn't get you into trouble did I?" Harry asked, prepared to fire off a sharp owl if she said 'yes'.

"No, more a frustrated exchange about none of us having any time to pay attention to any of the rest of us."

"Hm," Harry murmured, concentrating on eating because he was hungry. The fire, burning higher in the evenings due to the cooling weather, shifted, sending cinders onto the hearthstone.

Once he was no longer famished, Harry quietly said, "I could use some advice, if you can keep a secret."

"I can keep a secret, Harry." She wiped her hand and raised a finger. "Unless it conflicts with one of the house rules."

"Our house has official rules?"

"It has a rule at the moment that you are grounded." She peered at her plate. "It probably has others. But I trust you will not shake your guard again."

"I don't know about that," Harry said.

She glared at him in surprise, then laughed lightly. "At least you're honest."

"Honesty is my trouble at the moment. I have a problem with a friend and I don't know what to tell him."

"Well, run it by me. I can keep secrets; it's part of my job to."

"Well, I suspect something about this friend that he really should know and . . ."

"You suspect or you know? There's a world of difference if the issue is a sticky one."

Harry thought about that as they ate. Filling up fast, Candide pushed her plate away, saying, "I'll get a snack later. Can't eat so much at a time this week," she said, patting her rounding belly.

Dinner faded away and herbal tea arrived in Candide's place setting. "Want some?" she asked. Harry shook his head as he laid another log on the fire and brushed his hands off before resuming his seat. He said. "I guess I only strongly suspect this thing about this friend." He shook his head and gave up on trying to be secretive. "Well, let me run it by you. My friend Aaron . . . see, he's from this wealthy family, and . . . well, his father's dead, but . . . erm, I suspect his father is actually someone else."

Candide shook her head. "Back up a bit. What makes you suspect this?"

"I did Legilimency on Lord Freelander when he said something that made me think I'd led him on about something. But I was wrong. See, I thought he may be referring to me because he wanted to adopt me, but I'm pretty sure I saw in his mind that he was referring to Aaron."

Candide shook her head rapidly again. "Okay, from dealing with Severus, I've come to the conclusion that not knowing what others really think is a critical factor in keeping society functioning smoothly. But that aside for the moment . . ." She faded out and propped her chin on her hand to think. "So, Freelander thinks he's Aaron's father, you are saying? He may be wrong."

Harry tapped his fingers beside his fork. "I hadn't thought of that."

She lined her tea bag, sugar jar, and spoon up neatly beside her cup as she talked, as though adding them up. "But, if he even suspects it, then the odds are, well, let's say better than even, probably. Do they look alike?"

Harry shrugged. "I suppose. They don't not look alike. Freelander's a little grey and getting up in years, so it's harder to tell than if he were younger. But there are other things. He knew much too much about Aaron's past. See, Aaron was my guard the other day when I went to visit and Freelander was really hard on him, and then really surprised when he found out he was an Auror apprentice." Harry fell thoughtful. "It's like he was trying to get over his own disappointment or something."

"Hm," she muttered meaningfully. "That does support your suspicion. So the question is: what to tell your friend."

Harry turned pained eyes on her. "Yeah. I'm really having a real tough time with this. I know he thinks a lot of his father. Well, the person he was raised by. Even if I was certain, I don't know what I'd say."

"You could stay out of it."

"That doesn't seem right either." Harry sighed. "Freelander will eventually decide something, I suppose, but Aaron's my friend and I feel like I should be open with what I suspect."

"That's a tough one, Harry. I'm not sure I have a clear suggestion for you. Why don't you try feeling Aaron out on the topic, just to get a sense of how he's going to react to the news."

Harry nodded. "That's a good idea. I'll do that. Maybe I can get him assigned as guard tomorrow."

- 888 -

The next day, Aaron followed Harry home at Harry's request.

"Is Ginny coming today?" Aaron asked.

"No, just Wednesday this week, since I am claiming her as an assigned guard and that's a stretch. Why?"

Aaron shrugged. "No reason."

"How'd your date go with her on Sunday?" Harry asked, now wondering, when before he felt he should stay out of it.

"It was fine. It was nice."

"Is that a bad thing?" Harry asked, trying to read his tone and vaguely stiff body language.

"No, of course that's not a bad thing," he said, mood shifting. "She's perhaps too serious for me, but we have another date. Come on, let's get into the books shall we? I somehow haven't managed to since the last time we studied together."

They settled into the library over tea and biscuits, Harry happy to have a guard who did not feel like one. Aaron frequently stood to stretch, stopping by the window as he did so. Harry heard his pet rattling her cage upstairs and waved an Alohomora in that direction to let her come down, which she did.

"Your purple flying rat," Aaron said, retaking his seat

"Hey," Harry said, feigning insult while stroking Kali's head. "She's been good to me. She helped rescue Severus among other things."

Aaron sighed, and changed books. "I can't read more than three pages of one at a time," he explained.

Harry laughed. "Want me to read aloud?"

Aaron sat straight to peer over the rim of Harry's book. "No. I'm too far behind you." He jerked his head to stare out the darkening window, appeared to consider standing again, but sat back with his book instead.

"What is it?" Harry asked,

"I don't want to sound paranoid, but lately I feel like I'm being watched."

Harry pulled his wand out and ran the spell to check the perimeter of the house. It flared blue with a sputter of red at the end.

"Huh," Harry uttered. "No, don't move," he said to Aaron when his friend put his hands on the chair arms as if to rise. Harry prodded his pet and stared into her eyes. "Out the chimney with you; I don't want to open a window and give anything away."

Kali flew off when released. Harry closed his eyes and tracked her flight up the blackened, gritty flue. Near the top, she pulled her wings in and crawled easily over the rough tile inside. Aaron did not speak while Harry concentrated.

From her perch upon the spindly chimney, Kali peered down around herself over the slate roof and the dark fields behind. A low light beside the garden wall caught her attention. She flapped down and around it. It turned out to be a dark cloaked figure, hunched over a faint fairy light. Kali circled again, diving low, attracting no attention from the target.

For a moment, Harry was back in the library with his hands over his eyes. He felt for the breeze in his wings and was back circling the garden as though a giant rubber band had snapped him back. The figure behind the wall was bent over a notebook and holding an extendable eyeball. Harry wondered at that, since he did not believe the twins sold them.

Kali flapped by too close, indicated by the figure crouching lower and covering the notebook with its cape. The figure did not glance up, to Harry's dismay. Instead, it Apparated away.

"What is it?" Aaron asked, because Harry had made a noise of defeat.

"He or she got away. Someone was spying on us though."

Aaron went to the window and stood there with his arms crossed.

Harry said, "Let's add some traps outside and then move to the main hall where the windows face the road."

"Sounds good," Aaron said.

The two of them, cloaked and gloved, slogged through the dead brush around the property and a corner of the neighbor's property, leaving behind trapping spells that grew more elaborately clever as they went. Harry wanted to say something to Aaron, but had not worked out exactly what. His suspicion that this watcher had something to do with Freelander kept him from calling in others from the Auror's office.

Back inside, Harry threw a few choice logs on the hall fire and they settled in there on the couches. Harry arranged his thoughts and asked his friend, "So, your dad wasn't around much when you were young, you said."

Aaron answered without pulling his nose out of his book. "No. He was off, frequently. He ran a wizard architectural firm for a while, then a consultancy. Most of his clients were on the continent where the laws about expanding wizard property are more liberal." Before Harry could compose a followup question, Aaron volunteered, "You know, he didn't even have to work and for a while, he lost money, but in the end, ended up making quite a bit. But what was the point? He was never home." A whiff of bitterness floated out at the end of this.

"Your mum didn't mind him going off?"

"She said he wouldn't be happy if he didn't get to be his own person, make his own way. So, I decided I should get to be my own person too."

"Do you miss him?" Harry asked, and felt a twinge as he did so, like he had crawled too far out on a flimsy tree limb.

"Yeah. Don't you miss your dad?"

"I don't remember him," Harry said, voice drifting away.

"That's a shame," Aaron said, sounding pained. "I don't think I'd know who I was if I hadn't known my dad at all."

Harry dropped the topic.

Aaron begged off from dinner when Harry's evening guard arrived. After a quiet meal across from Candide, who spent it perusing files, Harry penned a letter to Snape asking permission to come speak with him. Hedwig returned promptly and Harry opened the small missive to find a sharply worded reply saying that he mostly certainly could come to speak with him and that asking was an unnecessary delay if he needed help with something. The pen strokes of the letter spoke of frustration even more than the words. Harry folded the message away in his pocket and collected Hornisham to take the Floo into Hogsmeade, feeling like he couldn't do things right all of a sudden.

Harry insisted that Candide follow along, even after she gave him a disbelieving, tired glare at the suggestion. She stood awkwardly while patting her abdomen, and accepted her cloak.

"Sorry," Harry said. "But I can't leave you here alone tonight. Someone was watching the house earlier."

Hornisham perked up at this. "Next time I can bring one of my pets to patrol."

"Er, we added some spells. I doubt they'll be back. But certainly, as long as it's something small and doesn't breath fire."

Hornisham's lips curled as she nodded. "Yeah, yeah, I know just the pet. Mathilda could use some getting out. She gets cranky and the Ministry said she had to stay in a cage 'cept for official business."

"And what sort of creature is Mathilda?" Candide asked factually.

"Monstrous Centipede," Hornisham proudly announced. "The only registered one in the Isles."

"She doesn't mind the cold?" Harry asked, sort of thinking they should avoid Mathilda.

"Ach. I knitted her a woolly sweater," she replied, patting the sack of knitting hitched over her shoulder. "Took me over a year to do it. Had to knit all the hundred sleeves out of single hairs of wool."

"We'll see if we need her," Harry said. "I think for now we're all right. By the way, have you met Hagrid, the Hogwarts gamekeeper?"

"I remember him from school and his name come up in the files often enough, but I haven't been formally introduced, I don't believe."

"Well," Harry brightly said, while reaching for the Floo powder, "why don't I leave you two with him while I talk to Severus. I have this strange feeling you two are going to hit it off." He and Candide shared faint smiles.

- 888 -

Snape, with a sharp wave, sent off the student doing detention and gestured at the visitor's chair. The student, a tall, slope-shouldered Slytherin, lumbered off, head down, appearing to attempt to slink off without Harry's notice.

The door closed and Harry skipped sitting. "So, someone was watching the house tonight," he said. Bringing Snape's hooded eyes to alert. "I left Candide at Hagrid's hut with my guard, don't worry."

"You left Candide with Hagrid and I'm not to worry?" Snape stated dryly as he came around the desk to lean his hip on the front of it.

"Oh, come on. Hagrid is harmless."

"Hagrid tries to be harmless. He rarely succeeds. But you were saying . . . ?"

"So, I think Freelander is spying on Aaron . . ."

Snape sounded hard still. "Whatever for?"

"Because he thinks he's Aaron's biological father; I'm fairly certain."

Snape pondered that. "That's interesting. So, why are you here, then? Ask him yourself."

"Next week, I can do that," Harry pointed out. "It didn't feel like a topic one should send by owl."

Snape straightened the inkwells at his side. "So, you are asking for permission to go speak with him?"

"I was hoping I could do that," Harry said.

"It would defeat the purpose of grounding you to grant exceptions." They stared at each other as the lamp on the desk fluttered, sending oil smoke into the air. "What were you doing when you shook your guard? If you tell me I may reduce the time of your punishment."

"If I tell you; you'll make it a month," Harry said.

Snape turned away and returned to the chair behind the desk. "That illuminates the topic nicely, actually," he said with a hiss.

"Does it?" Harry said.

"You may speak with Freelander on Friday evening. I will escort you there myself," Snape stated. "Was that it?"

He sounded so unyielding that Harry felt a disorienting wave of doubt about where he was. Swallowing, he said, "There is something else." He tried to feel hurt instead of uncertain, but it was a hard battle. "I want to tell Tonks the truth about what I can do."

"I cannot stop you from doing so; I can only strongly advise against it."

"She doesn't trust me," Harry complained.

Snape crossed his arms and said, "And when telling her does not solve that . . . what then?"

Harry honestly considered that despite wanting to rebel. It was possible that Tonks wasn't good at trusting and he was just grasping. But he had to try. "I don't know what then," he admitted.

Silence fell, ruled by the wind rattling at a loose windowpane. Harry concluded with, "That's all I wanted to talk to you about."

With a warmer tone, Snape said, "Thank you for the warning . . . warnings. Is Candide working less?"

"Yes," Harry said. "She's mostly home at an earlier hour now."

"Good." They considered each other during another awkward pause. Snape said, "I'll be home for longer this weekend, if I can manage it."

"I'll see you then," Harry said automatically, and turned for the door.

He was brought up short before he could grab the handle by Snape saying, "Do take care," in a tone that meant it.

Harry turned back, but kept his head down. Snape went on, "Despite someone plotting to do you harm, I am convinced you remain your own worst enemy. And I am relieved that whatever you were doing, you are safely through it."

"I am," Harry agreed. Thinking more, he said, "But if it isn't Freelander spying on Aaron or the house, shouldn't we know that sooner?"

"Owl him regarding it."

"Not a chance," Harry replied. "I wouldn't know where to start. And besides, I'll need Legilimency to figure it out if he doesn't want to answer."

A brow went up. "Well, at least you have learned that much."

- 888 -

The next day, Harry, after three peeks into the office, finally caught Tonks between calls.

"Can I see you this afternoon?" Harry asked her, thinking he could sneak in a visit before going home.

She glanced up from the report she was scratching out. "Yeah. I promised myself for once to get home at a reasonable hour. I can take over from your guard after dinner, if you want to drop by."

Harry bit his lips. He could use the excuse that he had to fetch her for a guard. Harry noticed that Shacklebolt's quill had stopped moving, indicating he was listening in. The notion that Snape may have informed the Order of his grounding nearly made him laugh aloud. Perhaps it was just the ongoing dating issue.

"Okay, I'll pick you up as a guard then. I have some things I really need to talk to you about," Harry said.

She gave him a fretful glance at that, but when he smiled faintly it went away.

"Give me until seven, and I'll be home."

Aaron followed Harry home, and when Ginny arrived, he stood to take her cloak with a butlerish aplomb. Her face mottled nearly maroon through the process and she took a seat across from Harry without really looking at him, leading him to wonder what he was missing.

She stood back up again quickly, saying, "Let's drill, I have to get home for dinner."

Harry held off on using any Legilimency on her, feeling it to be highly unfair. Wand in his pocket, Harry took up a spot across from her and had to take a step back when her wind curse buffeted him.

"Easy there," he said, tugging his robes straight from them wanting to knot up behind him.


After a dozen gentle breeze-like spells, Harry called a halt. "I can't work this out," he said of his attempts to block ordinary curses by feel rather than by wand. "And I'm quite tired of standing here getting hit. Let's work on something else."

She lowered her wand and considered him. "Even I'm tired of hitting you repeatedly, Harry," she stated.

"I appreciate that you're trying to help," Harry said.

"Actually, my attenuation has got quite good of late from having to tone down all these curses to harmless level," she said. "The other day, I wanted to heat a single toffee because it had got too cold in my pocket to bite into, and it was really easy. Before, I would have scorched the wrapper."

"I'm tired of dreaming about fighting without a wand," Harry complained, rubbing his hair back and gratefully raising his wand. "Let's just do regular attack-counter drills."

"You're not giving up for good?" she demanded, automatically raising her wand too.

"For now. I'm starting to think it's not possible for me to block any sort of curse without a wand. I can feel the curse, but I can't do anything about it in time."

"You shouldn't give up," she said sharply.

"Well, I won't give up, but I need a break."

Ginny said, "We'll just do less of it, but I'm not going to let you quit. It's too amazing of a skill if you think you can do it."

Aaron, who stood off to the side listening until then, said, "It's not that amazing," a little peevishly. "Someone could still Charm him to death."

"Yeah?" Ginny prompted disbelievingly, blushing again.

"For example, a Snare Charm inside a Water Bubble Charm could drown someone."

Ginny lowered her wand and said, "Only a Slytherin would think of that."

"I'm just sayin'," Aaron returned, arms broadly uncurling as he spoke.

The conversation turned to the topic of countering spells as they fell into rounds of drills. They broke for snacks after Ginny decided dinner with her parents did not sound all that interesting and Harry sat back and watched her engage Aaron in conversation.

Candide arrived some time later and immediately dropped into a chair at the table to sort her post. She did not make a note about Harry having two guards.

Harry took a deep breath and said to her, "I need to run out to exchange guards—" He was interrupted by a tray holding two bowls sparkling in before her.

Candide sighed and picked up the spoon to eat a scoop of orange ice cream. "Just what I wanted: kumquat ice cream."

"What's the other?" Ginny asked, squinting with a funny face at the second bowl.

Candide leaned forward to sniff. "Pickled radish, I think."

"Right," Harry said, backtracking on what he planned to say. "Hm, maybe Ginny will stay with you while I go fetch Tonks, you know, my next guard."

Aaron nibbled on a crisp and said, "She doesn't get assigned as guard much, does she?"

"She hasn't lately," Harry agreed. Candide ate with too much vigor to notice that Harry may have concocted an excuse to leave when he was not supposed to.

At seven, Harry and Aaron waited at Tonk's flat, but she did not show up. Despite Tonks' poor history of punctuality, they went to the Ministry at just past the hour to look for her.

The Aurors office was busy with Ministry staff going in and out.

"Wonder what's going on," Aaron muttered as they dodged out of the way of another fast striding person while trying to listen in at the door.

Mr. Weasley went by, hands full of files, saw the two of them there and said to them. "Good, go fetch whatever Rodgers needs in Interrogation Room Two."

The two of them glanced at each other and headed that way. Inside Room Two, they found Rodgers crouched before a prisoner, who sat against the wall, looking wary and confused. Harry had his wand out, as was procedure, but his thoughts were not quite on standard procedure.

Rodgers said, "Fetch me the Truth Serum Support tray. Either he's immune to Veritaserum, or it needs a supplemental Tongueloosener."

Harry gestured for Aaron to fetch the potions while he took up a position behind Rodgers right shoulder. The man on the floor had an average appearance in his face and hair. The only things out of the ordinary were his boot was scorched and his hand was tucked against his abdomen as if it were injured.

"How'd he get hurt?" Harry asked.

"He won't say," Rodgers said, tugging on the man's arm and it limply flopped outward. His hand showed puckered streaks like a burn. "He and his companion were tied up inside the phone box and lowered into the Atrium anonymously. But I'm beginning to suspect their memories were wiped."

The prisoner's brow furrowed as he took Harry in, eyes flickering with recognition. Harry couldn't read anything in his eyes beyond general wariness, surprise, and an intrepid desire to keep a secret.

Aaron returned and hovered the tray in the far corner since the room had no furniture. He brought the potions Rodgers requested and an empty glass to mix them in. Rodgers used a spell to force the prisoner to drink it, then sat back in his heels to wait for it to work. A trickle of violet potion dribbled from the corner of the prisoner's mouth, making Harry swallow convulsively. This was all standard procedure, but it was making him uneasy.

Rodgers patted the man hard on the leg. "So, there. What's your name?"

The prisoner thought about that and faintly answered, "Francesco."

"Now were getting somewhere. Francesco what?"

"Francesco," came the monotone reply.

They went back and forth a bit, failing to elicit anything meaningful. Rodgers stood to pace and Harry said, "He's got the look of Durumulna."

"Oh, he does. We're going to have to wait a week or three for that to wear off so we can see what he really looks like." He waved at the potion tray. "Let's try the other prisoner next. But I'm not hopeful."

Harry found Tonks sometime later. She said, "I see we are both not getting away from the office."

Harry felt vaguely relieved to be putting off telling her on top of anxious because he would prefer she already know. "I left Ginny keeping Candide company, and I think she'll not mind staying longer since they get along well enough. I do want to talk to you, if you can get away."

Her eyes flickered with renewed worry. "Sure, I'll finish my reports in the morning," she said, which was unusual for her. "Let's go."

Harry told Aaron he did not need him for a guard any longer, and he gave Harry a wink as he departed. In Tonks' flat, she kicked off her platform shoes and padded, shorter, to the table to set her post down on a teetering pile.

"If it weren't for howlers, I'd sometimes open none of my post," she said. She stared at the envelope on top of the stack and then turned toward Harry, gaze lowered. "I think I know what you are going to say," she said, mouth twisted half into a frown.

"I sincerely doubt it," Harry said. "But first." He pulled out his wand and circled the flat, securing it from everything he could think of, including forcing Animagi to reveal themselves. He returned to where she stood watching him do this, wand out still after taking care of spelling the door while he did the rest.

Harry said, "I've wanted to tell you some things, but . . . well, Severus didn't think it was a good idea for me to tell you . . . anyone, actually," he amended quickly. "But I want you to know." They stared at each other. Harry said, "Why don't you sit down? That way I can sit down."

Tonks pushed back a chair, nearly toppling it, caught it, and sat down, pushing against the table to rock back on two legs.

Harry pulled the other chair around closer and clasped his hands together. "So, the thing is . . . and I do agree with Severus that it would be better if the Ministry didn't know what I'm going to tell you . . ."

"I don't plan on telling anyone, Harry," she stated a tad coldly.

"Good. Okay. It's like this. Well, first of all, you know already how I can call the Raksashas out of the Dark Plane, but what you don't know is that I can go there too." When she stared at him without speaking, he went on, wanting to minimize that. "Er, what that means is that I can Apparate, in a way, practically anywhere, without a sound. That day by the windmill when I followed you and I shouldn't have . . . and you thought I had my cloak. I had used the Dark Plane to travel to you." He stood up. "Watch." Harry went in and out, moving just a few feet.

She let her chair drop with a thud back to four legs. "That's nice," she said, intrigued. Then, confused, asked, "Your going where to do that?"

"Er, the Dark Plane." He waved his level hand over the floor. "It's just below us."

In a neutral confirming voice, she asked, "And this is where those demons live?"

Reluctantly, Harry replied, "Yeah. But they don't bother me unless I don't believe I can overpower them."

She exhaled thoughtfully, seeming to put that aside for later. After a beat, she confirmed, "And you can go anywhere?"

"Essentially. Hogwarts, Department of Mysteries, I assume any vault at Gringotts but I haven't tried that."

She snorted lightly. "You're Harry; of course you haven't tried that." She crossed her arms and raised a hot pink brow. "Fetch something from the Department of Mysteries," she said, challenging him, which made Harry warm straight through.

Harry disappeared straight away, entering the most secretive Ministry department in one of the back corridors he figured to be less trafficked. Being evening, he heard nothing from where he stood between a room holding shelves of books and one holding the glass prophecies, the shelves sparsely occupied since Harry and his friends had broken most of them.

On tip-toe, Harry made his way around to the work room. With the soothing bubble and hum of the Tank of the Ancients lulling him, his eyes sought out something unique that he could slip away with. The deep high shelves over one of the desks caught his eye. He'd seen Merton's cane there, but did not see it now. He stepped closer and spied it, tucked away better, the velvet sacked cinched and knotted. Biting his lip, he carefully drew it out from under some other boxes and packages and disappeared with it.

Back in Tonks' flat, he presented the cane to her with a little bow.

She shook her head and tested the heft of it through the sacking before handing it back, saying, "That is how you captured Fuego. You followed him, when he disappeared the way they tend to."

"Yes," Harry said, relieved that she was catching on quickly.

She stood and waved at the strip of wall beside the door to the sitting room. "You can leave that there, I'll return it later. I could use a drink I think." She rummaged in the cabinets, swearing faintly. "They wouldn't be able to hold you in the rebuilt Azkaban, either," she said.

"The French prison has some special protection, since they can hold Fuego," Harry pointed out.

"Yes. We've had to send them the one other vampire we apprehended a few decades ago because we couldn't hold her." She rummaged under the sink next, coming up with a silver bottle from behind the dusty cleaning supplies. "But we don't have the skill to add that protection, and don't need it normally anyhow. Apparition and portkey barriers are usually sufficient." She sat back, legs wide and casual, and took a swig from the bottle. "Well, I understand Severus' concern. I really do," she said grimly, biting her lips in between. "After what happened with Sirius . . ." She trailed off and frowned worriedly before looking away and holding the bottle out to him.

Harry waved off the bottle. "That's not all."

She froze mid-putting the bottle to her lips. "That was the easy one; wasn't it?" she asked. "You have an annoying tendency to do that: good news first."

"That was the easy one, yes," Harry said, plowing on, "The other thing is that from within the Dark Plane, I can go to other Planes besides this one. Places where other events have happened in the past and the present isn't the same." He waited for any reaction and didn't get one. He went on. "When I disappeared, supposedly to Latvia, I was really in another Plane where I had died as a First Year and Voldemort was headmaster of Hogwarts. I could have come back right away . . . but I wanted to destroy him before I left."

She blinked many times in a row and set the bottle down with a thunk. It was a minute before she ceased to appear stunned and ill. "Another place where things worked out differently?" she echoed.


She leaned forward over her fists propped on the table and said, "Are you certain you didn't imagine this? Like a dream?"

"I'm certain."

"Harry," she chastised. "Really, how can that be possible?" She grinned faintly and continued to sound critical. "Voldemort as headmaster?"

"Well, in one place he was, in the other he was just still alive. See, time is the same in these other places, but the events are different."

She rocked her spiky hair, and still did not appear to believe him. She turned to glance at the cane in the corner. "So, you fetched that using this Dark Plane and you came back here, but you could have gone somewhere else?"

"Well, it takes some extra effort to go to a different Plane. And it is super cold in between, so I nearly freeze to death. Just popping in and out of this one, I've got good at."

Her brow did not un-furrow. "How many times have you done this . . . going to this other place where things are different?"

"Three. A count I'd prefer you not tell Severus."

She picked up the bottle again to gesture at him with it, still disturbed. "You have a lot of secrets going here, Harry."

Harry glanced at the clock. "And another secret is that I'm here at all. I should get back."

She considered pocketing the bottle, but left it on the table. She sighed significantly and stepped up close to him and stroked his arms through his cloak. "I'm glad you told me." Her eyes crossed, before she closed them and held them that way. "Well, I think I'm glad. Yeah." She opened her eyes and gazed at him rather closely, sounding mentorish. She said tiredly, "You are not going to be able to resist using this way of getting around, and you'll need cover."

Harry smiled. "Thanks for that. I need all the help I can get."

"You may need help, but you don't need a guard; that's for certain," she stated crisply, sounding slightly put-upon or jealous.

"I agree. Get Mr. Weasley to agree, please," Harry said. "I'm so very tired of this."

"Well, you are grounded, so let's get you home before you get caught for that."

They arrived in Shrewsthorpe and Candide, without pickles and ice cream as a distraction, was a little sharper this time. "Where were you exactly?"

"I got caught up at the Ministry," Harry said. "Tonks wasn't at her flat where we were supposed to meet."

Tonks smoothly said, "Someone unexpectedly left the Ministry a present and we were shorthanded."

Ginny said with a weak laugh, "Little early for Christmas."

Tonks said, "Strange gift too. Minister is calling a presser in the morning, so I can tell you what happened if you like."

Ginny leaned forward. "Do tell."

Tonks, finding amusement in it, explained about the two gang members being stuffed in the phone box and sent down to the Atrium.

Ginny smiled strangely. "So, what do you think happened?"

Tonks replied, "We suspect they displeased their masters and got punished this way, which is why the Minister is more than willing to make an example of them."

"Huh," Ginny said, sitting back. She bit her lip and Harry tried to catch her eyes, but she kept them elsewhere. She departed soon after and Harry did not want to say anything in front of the others, but he strongly suspected she knew something.

Up in his room, Tonks settled in with a book while Harry penned a letter to Ginny. He wrote simply:

I can understand wanting to keep a secret, but sometimes sharing it can prevent a lot of trouble. Trust me.

Her reply arrived in the morning:

I don't feel like telling. It's under control.

Harry frowned at the message as he tossed it into the fire, remembering with a jolt that the prisoners were burned.

"So, what do you think?" Candide asked a little sharply.

"Huh?" Harry said, spinning around to face her. He had not been listening.

She laughed lightly and glanced at Tonks tucking into a second helping of breakfast. "I said, shall I convince Severus to let us all go out, even though you will still be grounded?"

"Oh. I'd like that, but it's all right. I don't want to push him." He sat down again across from Candide and let the mystery draw burn slow circles in his head.

Candide leaned back from the table with a sigh and distractedly rubbed her belly. Tonks wiped her mouth and said, "Severus ready for a baby?"

Candide laughed lightly. "I doubt it."

Harry put his other concerns aside and listened more closely.

Candide grinned and shook her head, making her hair shift. "He'll figure it out fast enough."

Harry did not feel as certain. "You think so? Maybe."

"What are you getting him for his birthday?" Candide asked. "I haven't figured anything out yet. I thought it'd be easy, but all I see when I'm out shopping is things for the baby. Which reminds me . . . we have to clear out one of the other upstairs rooms for the cot."

Harry's skin pricked at the thought that she might want to use the room where Snape had performed the dark magic spell to locate Harry the night he flew off. Thinking quickly, he said, "Maybe you should use my room and we can move me over to one of the other rooms." There was nothing but molding furniture in the farthest room on the first floor. Even he would prefer to not sleep in the room where he first felt the Dark Plane, even though he now understood it.

"You wouldn't mind? That'd be more convenient to have the baby's room next door."

Relief softened Harry's limbs. "Yeah. No worries. We can talk about it this weekend when Severus is here." Harry blinked into the distance. "But a present," he breathed. "I forgot about his birthday."

"As long as you didn't get him something fantastic that I have to top," Candide said, "we're fine."

"I have to think of something," Harry said. "And fast."

- 888 -

Friday evening, Harry waited with Vineet for Snape to come home. Harry did not feel like spending Friday reading for training, so he instead read through that week's newspapers. Several days' commentary had been devoted to the mysterious gang members handed over to the Ministry. One letter writer, calling himself Oldetimy Occlutist, stated that he hoped the blokes' parents themselves had finally grown fed up enough to turn them in themselves. Harry hoped that was not the case.

"What time does your adoptive father arrive?" Vineet asked.

Harry glanced at the clock. "Soon." Thinking he heard a tinge of impatience in his friend's voice, Harry followed with, "Have something you need to get to?"

"I am taking Hermione to dinner in Hogsmeade."

"OH," Harry said dramatically, while folding up the paper he had before him and selecting the next randomly off the stack. "Well, we shan't keep you too long, in that case."

"I will remain as long as required," Vineet pledged.

"I'm certain Hermione will understand if you're a tad late."

"Oh, it is not late I am worried about being. I was hoping to be early."

Harry raised the next newspaper up to hide his grin, and found himself faced with a photo of himself and Kerry Ann taken during one of the press visits to their training. His heart sped up when he spotted the byline of Rita Skeeter on the article below the headline Aurors in Love, but a quick read-through revealed only vague innuendo around the vastly male dominated Department of Law Enforcement. Harry folded up the paper, giving up on reading while he still had his temper.

Snape arrived minutes later and sent Vineet off with a bow. Vineet, for him, fairly scampered away.

"Ready?" Snape asked, glancing around. "Candide is not home?"

Harry stood and wandered to the front hall for his dress cloak. He called back, "I suggested she be late, so she isn't home before we return."

Snape waited for him to return to the main hall before acknowledging, "Wise of you."

Harry shrugged, resisting pleasure from the compliment.

On the walk up the drive to the rambling Freelander estate, Harry slowed saying, "I haven't figured out what I'm going to say."

Snape stopped. "Difficult to confront a benefactor," he said, an eerie echo of what the alternative version of him had said.

"What would you do?" Harry asked.

In the gloomy surroundings of the gravel drive with a night bird dashing musically overhead, Snape considered that before replying, "I would choose a framing for the issue that he cannot resist."

Harry said, "Okay. I think I have one," and resumed walking, wanting to have this over with.

Freelander was getting ready for a small dinner party. Servants bustled about, walking awkwardly upright as they rushed across the unnecessarily broad rooms. The two of them were led to a parlor adjoining the main suite and Harry asked Snape to wait in a previous room, thinking that it would be too difficult with him there.

Freelander, bright cuffs and collar undone, came in and gestured curtly at a seat as he selected cufflinks from a jewelry box held out to him by a servant. The dour servant assumed a waiting position a step back, and Harry said, "Perhaps I should speak with you alone, sir."

When the servant had departed, Harry, keeping Snape's advice firmly in mind, said, "I may be out of line here, but I must ask you something because your answer affects the security the Ministry is keeping around me." Harry took a deep breath and said to Freelander's curious gaze, "Have you sent someone to spy on Aaron?"

A thick, trimmed brow went up and Freelander tossed his other cuff straight to hook it. "Yes. Not that it is any concern of yours."

"Yes, well, it was upsetting the security around myself," Harry carefully explained.

"Oh, yes, well, I told my man to forthwith avoid investigating when Aaron is in your presence."

Freelander stood and tugged his waistcoat over his round frame. "If that is all?"

It was not all. Harry wanted to know what he was up to. "Why are you having him followed?" he asked.

Freelander reddened faintly. "As I said, no concern of yours."

"It is my concern" Harry said, finding a route out of the maze of owing this man. "He's my friend and I don't want to see him hurt."

"Hurt? How could he possibly get hurt, Mr. Potter?" Freelander asked, pulling out his watch to glance at it, clearly ready to be done with this meeting.

Harry could not understand what he had just heard and felt caution slip away. "What do you mean? You're threatening to upset everything he understands about his father and you wonder how he could be hurt?"

Freelander deliberately slipped his watch away into the small pocket at his waist. "You're easy to underestimate, Mr. Potter. Or did you to interrogate my man Young and he just did not want to tell me that."

Harry shook his head. "He got away."

The crinkles in Freelander's face shifted as he reconsidered things. "I expect you to leave it to me to tell Mr. Wickem." This was stated as a dismissal.

Harry said, "I will leave it to you if I can, but like I said, he's my friend. I can't promise you that."

Freelander sighed faintly and picked up his cane. "I have a dinner party to host, I'm afraid. Clydeswayne will see you out." A wave of his wand summoned the butler.

As they were led back through dimly lit room after room, clinking glasses and energetic voices emanated from deeper within the house. In the entryway, their cloaks were returned and the butler hurried off with a quick bow.

"Get everything straight?" Snape asked.

"Maybe," Harry said with a shrug.

"Perhaps not worth granting an exception to your grounding in that case," Snape stated.

"It WAS him," Harry said, feeling anger. "I was right."

"As you presumed," Snape said dismissively.

Harry stared at his guardian, vastly out of place in the white, baroquely plastered entry hall lit by an overhead chandelier. He wondered why they were at odds again, but felt little desire to back off. "Grounding me was ridiculous anyway," Harry said.

"I will decide that," Snape said, taking a step toward the door, but keeping his narrow gaze pinned on Harry. Harry moved to follow, and Snape turned fully on him. "What did you shake your guard for?"

"I went to rescue someone," Harry replied stiffly, thinking that in this strange place that roundabout would be the best way to speak. "Someone who, because of me, had no protection from the law and was suffering greatly as a result."

Snape slowly shook his head.

"What would you prefer I do?" Harry demanded in a harsh whisper.

"You know nothing about the situation in that place. You presume everything."

Harry met his guardian's fierceness with his own. "I knew that he'd helped me; that's all I needed to know."

"You are out of control, Harry, with this power. You have no idea the trouble you could instigate."

"What are you jealous or something?" Harry asked.

Snape's head tilted in a way that told him he had gone too far.

"Nevermind, forget I said that," Harry muttered.

Snape's cloak spread wide as he propped his hands on his hips. "I don't know what to do with you."

"Don't do anything," Harry said. "I don't understand what you're so upset about." A rush of laughter drifting in from far away, made Harry glance around in case they were being watched. He did not see anyone and all the glittery-framed paintings looking on were of the static, Muggle sort.

Snape's voice lowered. "I am upset about the unnecessary risks you take. You do not possess sufficient wisdom to go with your powers."

"I do fine," Harry insisted. "I'm an adult now, in case you hadn't noticed."

Snape bit his lips and dropped his head in frustration. "Let's go. Candide will be returning shortly."

The house was empty when they arrived. Harry dropped onto the couch with a huff and crossed his arms. To himself he had to admit he was deathly tired of being guarded all the time and was taking that out on Snape.

"You're making too much of this," Harry calmly said, looking for a bridge.

Snape faintly shook his head in more a philosophical gesture than a reply. With matching renewed calm, he said, "As the parent, I get to decide what is to be made an issue of."

"You're starting to sound like my uncle Vernon."

"Insults will not help," Snape said.

Candide arrived home during the impasse that followed and stepped into the space between them. "Am I interrupting?" she asked.

"No," Harry replied.

"Well, that's unfortunate, because it looks like you need an interruption." She waved a chair in from the drawing room and took that rather than sitting beside one of them. "So, what's the trouble?" she asked, tugging off her long pointed boot to rub her foot while making a pained face.

Snape pondering her with an air of disbelief before giving in and saying, "Harry does not obey anything I say any longer."

She tugged off a second boot. "Well, that's hardly a surprise, given his age."

Harry shot a told-you-so look across at his guardian.

"Whose side are you on?" Snape demanded of her.

"Neither," she chirped. "That's why I'm sitting in the middle." She shifted her chair and stretched her toes out. "Are your demands unreasonable, Severus?"

"I am demanding that he stick with one universe. And no, that is not unreasonable."

Candide turned to Harry. "You jumped off to some other place again?" At Harry's nod, she tsked a bit.

"I can handle myself," Harry said. "He doesn't trust that I know what I'm doing. I told Tonks what I can do and she's completely on my side," he added smartly. "Why can't you be on my side?" Harry asked, feeling a tender stab as he said this.

Snape sat forward, shoulders hunched defensively. "I am always on your side. Whatever gave you the notion I was not? I refuse to allow you to harm yourself before you learn what you are doing. What part of that is not being on your side?"

Candide's gaze came around to Harry and they both waited for him to speak. "I don't know," Harry admitted, flustered. "It just . . . It just feels like you are seeing trouble where there isn't any, just to tell me what to do."

Snape's voice entered the low dangerous range. "That is not at all the case. Your powers carry unknown dangers . . . " He held up his hand for silence. "About which you are blithely cocky. And you refuse repeatedly to listen to warnings on a number of subjects."

"You don't know it's dangerous; you're just guessing," Harry said.

"As. Are. You." Snape replied. "I want to forbid you to use the Dark Plane or to visit any other Planes, but I suspect you will simply disobey me." He stood and paced.

"You don't understand," Harry said. "If I fear that Dark Plane, it will overtake me. And if I don't fear it, it doesn't matter if I go there."

Snape's brow furrowed and he did not reply, but simply rubbed at the worry lines between his eyes.

"If I may say," Candide said, half-raising her hand like a student might. "I don't think grounding Harry did anything except exacerbate the situation. But that's just my opinion. He's already essentially grounded with a guard all the time anyhow."

Harry nodded eagerly that he agreed with this. Snape tapped his knuckle to his teeth thoughtfully.

Candide slapped her hands on her lap and said, "Why don't we go out tomorrow and do something . . . as a family."

The last word shot through Harry. He did not really intend to make trouble, but he also could not control how chafed he became from his situation.

"An excellent idea," Snape said faintly, trying to sound pleased.

"Harry?" Candide asked. "You have plans?"

"No, I was still grounded. I don't have any plans. Going out sounds good."

- 888 -

The next day, a glaringly bright mid-November day where the sun starkly angled around every solid object, found them wandering York on a shopping trip. Candide stopped before the window of yet another baby clothiers and bent to take a closer look at the delicate, lacy things laid out on display. Snape wandered ahead, stopping to peer up at a sign promising dungeon tours, complete with instruments of torture, highwaymen, plagues, and Guy Fawkes.

Candide straightened and leaned close to Harry, "Your little tiff yesterday gives me hope that he's ready to have a younger son around the house."

"It does?" Harry said.

"Don't you think?" she said, sashaying slowly on as if to draw out their conversation before they were within earshot of Snape. She took Harry's arm and leaned on him slightly, making him wonder if she needed a break before lunchtime. "Are you ready for a younger brother?"

"Yes," Harry said, thinking that he'd rather like that.

Her voice dropped. "I think you're hoping it will fully distract your father," she accused.

"It might do that too," Harry agreed, not having considered that before.

She peered up at the Dungeon advert when Snape pointed at it suggestively and said, "Here I'm telling Harry to stay out of trouble."

Snape airily stated, "I thought there might be comic value in the Muggle notion of horror."

Candide ducked her head to chuckle. "My feet need a break. Maybe something else for now."

They minced down to the corner where there was a small coffee shop. The bell on the door jangled as Snape held it open for Candide. He gestured at the neighboring shoe shop window with its array of towering, spiked-heel shoes and said, "There's a real torture chamber there."

They shared a grin, which erased most of Harry's unease. They settled around a window-embraced table with their steaming drinks and Harry put aside all the mysteries and concerns he had on his mind and just enjoyed the moment. Over their mugs, Snape and Candide shared abbreviated comments and looks that spoke of unexpectedly deep understanding given how little time they managed to spend together. Harry forced himself to not worry for a time about Aaron, Ginny, Rodgers, Moody, Belinda and his unprovable suspicions about Percy. He put it all aside and with the perspective gained from doing so agreed that Snape probably was right: one universe ought to be enough. At that moment, it certainly was.

Next: Chapter 19 — A Surfeit of Fathers

Harry wrote out two letters in a careful hand and addressed one to Snape and one to himself. He then laid everything out that he would need on the edge of the bed, all clearly in view, all straight and deliberate. His actions felt ritualistic and strange. Perhaps there was a point to be made with what he was planning, a notion that only reinforced the idea, given how constricted he was feeling from his guardian's rules.

Chapter 19: A Surfeit of Fathers
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Chapter 19 — A Surfeit of Fathers

Sunday morning, the clouds hung as thick as smoke outside the window. Harry encountered Snape on the balcony and followed him down to breakfast, where Candide waited before the hearth in a dressing gown, hair still mussed. She stood in a pose that reminded Harry of McGonagall when she had reached her limit on some repeated transgression. The two of them stopped before her and she snapped out the paper she held, folded backward to show Rita Skeeter's gossip column.

The paper came down primarily in front of Snape, so Harry leaned over to get a better look.

Boy hero now Ministry darling 'Out of control' says adoptive father.

Harry physically jerked back from the paper in surprise. Snape snatched it up and paced away to read it before tossing it on the table.

"She must have been there the other night," Harry said, heart fluttering fast because he had feared they were not alone and had not taken action to check.

Snape was leaning heavily on a hand levered on a chair back, his other hand propped behind his back. He tossed his head once to the side.

"I was careful what I said," Harry pointed out, too stunned to sound critical.

Candide lifted the paper up and read: "Head of Slytherin house states he does not know what to do with Mr. Potter. Did you really say that?"

Snape sharply nodded once, which left his hair webbing his face. He was biting his lip and glaring off into the distance. He pushed away from the chair's support. "I am losing my edge." He shook his head additionally. "You were smarter than I about how to argue in an insecure location."

"How about not arguing at all?" Candide suggested. "Or at least only at home. Or not at all? I like that idea better."

Snape stared at her without reacting. Harry tugged the paper over and, with his back tense, read the rest of the article and the insinuations about him and his powers, complete with obnoxious I-told-you-so styled flashbacks to her earliest articles about Harry. He felt tainted after reading it and did not want to touch the paper. He gave it a flick to the side and sat down, wondering why his breath was still too quick.

Candide considered the two of them, heaved a sigh, and joined Harry at the table.

Snape strode over beside the hearth and straightened a metal box on the mantel. He was taking his slip hard, enough so that Harry felt compelled to minimize things. "It'll pass. It always does," Harry said, burying a flinch.

Snape turned to him and looked away again, jaw tight.

"Can I make a suggestion, Harry?" Candide asked with enough shyness that he could not help but reply that she could, despite wanting nothing more than a target for his frustration and anger. She went on, "Grant her an interview."

"Are you nuts?" Harry blurted.

"No. I just think it's the only way."

"NO. I refuse," Harry snapped.

"What are you going to do?" she asked gently.

"I don't know. But not that for certain."

Candide raised her chin to peer at Snape. "What do you think he should do?"

"I believe your suggestion to be a valid one, but not until things calm down. Perhaps nothing will come of it." He let his hand slide off the mantel and took the short step to stand beside Harry's chair. His hand landed on Harry's shoulder and he softly said, "Sorry, Harry."

"It's all right," Harry said, his anger stunned away by the rare apology. If he could handle Voldemort in under a week, he could handle Rita Skeeter.

- 888 -

When Harry next arrived for training, he was sent down to speak with Mr. Weasley. Harry wedged himself into the guest chair and tugged the door closed, careful not to pinch his fingers doing so.

A cut-up copy of the Prophet lay out on the desk. Mr. Weasley knitted his fingers in his lap and said, "I would have let this go, but Amelia wanted to be certain that you understand she is not pleased."

"Sorry," Harry said. "It was a mistake. It won't happen again." His mind flittered off to thinking more about things he could do to Skeeter. Trapping her into something seemed like the best plan, but the details of exactly how to do it had so far not solidified. The extra glances he had garnered in the Atrium on the way in had only increased his determination to get even, despite the reactions being milder than feared.

"That's, I suspect, what the Minister wants to hear."

His boss sounded dismissive, but Harry saw an opportunity to ask some questions of his own. "What is happening with Durumulna?"

"You make it sound as if you are being kept in the dark," Mr. Weasley observed. "There's not much new to report that you don't know. We're doing our best to combat them. But it turns out that there is a limit to what we can do without cooperation from the wizarding public at large. Bones is going to use these two dumped gang members to argue for as much public support as possible." He filed the news article in the bin while he spoke. It ignited and drifted to the bottom as grey curls.

"Why wouldn't people want to help?" Harry asked.

"Why not? Because they're afraid, mostly, that the gang will take retribution. That's the standard way they operate. Not everyone wants to be a hero, Harry." He shifted some files around on his desk. "In this case . . ." Here he held out a file that rather than have a name on the tab, per the norm, read DC #12. "In this case, using the lure of a small profit, they got an otherwise law-abiding wizard involved and after that the man felt compelled to do as they said, lest they turn him in to us. You'd be surprised how little crime it takes to keep a good person quiet," he said, mouth wry. "Ironically, it's the desire to appear good to their fellows that is the hook the gang uses on them and their family to coerce their participation in successively worse things."

"So, what about the Eeylops fire?"

A few carefully arranged hairs flopped off the top of Mr. Weasley's head as he tilted it. "That was a strange one. We haven't decided quite what happened there."

And your daughter knows something about it, Harry thought, and decided that he did not want to say anything about that, probably much like a Durumulna victim. "Maybe you need to offer amnesty, or something," Harry said after a beat.

Mr. Weasley nodded. "We've floated that idea." He rocked his chair forward and added, "I'm quite certain you have training."

"Oh yeah," Harry said, standing up quickly, which caused his chair to smack against the door behind him.

"Not that I wish to dissuade you from thinking like a full-time Auror . . ." Mr. Weasley added as Harry opened the door, making Harry stop and realize that his department head had gone out of his way to cater to his questions.

"Thanks, sir," Harry said with feeling.

- 888 -

Mid-week, Aaron sidled up to Harry after training and kicked his toe against the desk leg. "I'm going to ask to be assigned as your guard. I don't like being followed."

Rodgers raised his head at this and flicked his mustache side to side. "What's this?"

"Someone has been following Aaron," Harry supplied, when his fellow remained frustrated and silent. Harry was surprised that their trainer sounded sympathetic, but he was in charge of their safety.

"And you can't catch them at it?" Rodgers then added, canceling Harry's train of thought.

"I tried last night," Aaron said. "They had a repelling charm on them, so that I couldn't snag them with anything. Not a whip charm, a chain binding . . . nothing."

Harry thought that sounded rather expert for a private eye, but of course Freelander could afford the best.

Head still hanging low, Aaron said, "If I can be Harry's guard, I'd appreciate it."

"Put the two hunted parties together, you're saying," Rodgers said, "in the hopes that what? Your stalkers will trip over each other?"

Harry suggested to his fellow, "Ginny will be over for drills this afternoon, so why don't you come over even if you aren't assigned?"

- 888 -

On the couch, pretending to read from a book thick with eye-blurring, Gordion-worthy diagrams demonstrating every last variation of the various blocks they should know, Harry contemplated sending an owl to Freelander that threatened to tell Aaron what he knew. Elizabeth was counting on him, though, so his desire for an ultimatum was bound and gagged before it could even think about where the nice stationery might be.

Beside him, Aaron and Ginny were running drills and Aaron finally rose out of his down mood from earlier. Ginny caught onto the routines easily, but unfortunately had the same resistance to reading as Aaron.

"Maybe you should read something aloud," Harry suggested as Ginny spun on her toes from trying a reverse counter which, were she to get it, would put her up with the rest of the Second Years.

"You talking to me?" Ginny breathlessly asked.

"Either one of you," Harry said more stiffly than intended.
- 888 -

The next day, Freelander saved Harry from any difficult-to-compose owls. During lunch break, Aaron received an envelope of distinctive, creamy smooth paper. Harry focussed on his sandwich while Aaron opened the letter and scrunched up his face in perplexion as his eyes moved over the page. He scratched his head and folded the message away to finish his lunch, vaguely peeved.

Harry caught Aaron before he could leave the tea room but after everyone else had departed. "What was that?" he asked conversationally.

Aaron pulled the letter out again. "Something from Lord Freelygrander," he said, making Harry hold in a cringe.

"A party invitation?" Harry teased, feeling more deceptive than he preferred to be.

"No, or, I don't think so. He wants me to stop by Friday evening. Merlin knows why. So he can lecture me about the proper role for the Select British Wizard, or something," Aaron said, assuming a posher accent as he did so.

"Do you want company?" Harry asked, not wanting to leave his friend hanging out there with a man who did not see any risk in what he intended to tell his long-lost son.

Aaron turned to Harry as they reached the training room door. "You're willing to come along?" he asked in disbelief. "Harry, I would take Draco Malfoy along for company rather than go alone." He slipped inside, saying, "I'll buy you a week of fancy dinners if you will."

Kerry Ann raised her bushy head. "What's this? What's this? Fancy dinners are in the offing?"

"You don't need to do anything in return," Harry said as he slid into his seat.

"Oh, don't destroy the market!" Kerry Ann protested. "I was just about to bid higher than you."

Harry wanted to ask if Aaron's mum was around, but held back on doing so on the theory that it may later tip off that he knew something beforehand. He could feel a more straightforward, perhaps younger, version of himself admonishing him for that.

After training, Harry waited around in the Auror's office for Tonks. He had thought of a possible present for his guardian's fortieth birthday, something that fit in well with recent conversations they had had, but he needed to know if Tonks still had the thing he would need.

Tonks finally hustled by and Harry followed her to the file room, which worked perfectly for a private conversation. Harry ran some security spells just because he felt he should all the time now. Doing this reminded him of Moody and he wondered what had become of the old Auror, as he had not been following Harry for a blissfully long time.

"Hey, Harry," Tonks said without looking up from the ten-foot-long file drawer she had slung out and let glide to a rumbling stop before perusing the labels. Harry's Muggle-raised brain could not help but notice that the cabinet it emerged from was perhaps two-foot deep.

"I was wondering if you had returned the cane?"

"The cane?" she echoed.

"Yeah, the one I fetched the other night . . ." Harry hoped she'd catch on because he was leery of speaking clearly despite checking for anyone listening in.

Her nose was buried in a file. "Oh, I guess it's still there. I forgot about it."

"Oh good. I want to borrow it."

Tonks looked over the top edge of the file and Harry expected a lecture, but instead she said in a more sultry tone, "Why don't you stop by and fetch it? I'll owl you through the Floo when I get home."

Harry smiled and felt an awakening vibration run from his shoulder blades to his knees. "Aaron's my guard, so that should work. I just have to make a run to the sweet shop and I'll be over."

- 888 -

With dread unmatched in the last few months, Harry strode beside Aaron up to the doors of the Freelander estate. As per usual under such circumstances, the journey up the drive, waiting at the door, and being led inside by a butler, took place in a quick blur.

As they stood alone in Lord Freelander's presence, Harry secretly willed Aaron to behave himself, at least until he understood the circumstances.

"Sir," Aaron said and accepted the seat indicated by their host.

Freelander fingered a thick leather binder full of papers before setting it between the three of them on a low, stout table with lion-paw-tipped legs. He began, "Mr. Potter knows why we are here, and I am glad he has arranged to attend this meeting."

"He does?" Aaron said in surprise, glancing at Harry, who neglected to glance back.

Freelander went on, "And I see that he has remained silent about something I thought best for me to apprise you of."

He gazed at Harry, expecting a response. Harry said critically, "I didn't know how to begin."

"Yes, well, I suppose that's true." Freelander reached for the paperwork and flipped it open, making Harry grit his teeth together.

This isn't about official documents
, Harry silently berated the man. He felt a wave of nausea and wished he were elsewhere, but then reminded himself that Aaron should not go through this alone.

"Where's your mum?" Harry asked his friend.

Aaron replied, "Paris, at some show or another. She'll be home next week."

"Good," Harry breathed, then pinned his eyes on the side wall in case their host wished to call him on that with a meaningful look.

Freelander said to Aaron, "There are a few things you do not know . . ."

Aaron waved his hand. "There are many things I do not know," he commented dismissively in a stronger accent.

"Hmf," Freelander muttered, but his mood held, thankfully. "As I was saying. There are a few things you should be apprised of, now that I've determined you are worthy of knowing them."

Harry bit his lips to keep from mouthing the word "worthy". Part of him wanted to shout. He would prefer to face Voldemort again than face what was about to transpire and he wondered at his nearly visceral reaction.

Freelander said, "Perhaps we shall get straight to the point. It is like this, Mr. Wickem; your father is not who you thought he was."

"What are you blathering about?" Aaron asked. "What was he?"

Freelander frowned and shot Aaron a judgmental look. "Not what. Whom." He waited a pause. "As in not Bertram Wickem, but myself."

Aaron stood up and backed away from his chair. He laughed uneasily. "You're a nutter. What potions did you confuse this morning?" He glanced at Harry, who was remembering Candide's words of he may be wrong, and could only shrug helplessly. Aaron put his hand around the glossy wood edging the chair back and recovered himself. "No wonder you asked what my mum was doing," he commented to Harry.

"She should be here, maybe," Harry said to no one in particular.

Aaron said, "Yes, she should. Because I don't believe you." The last was directed at their host.

"It is no matter if you believe me," Freelander commented, sounding unaffected. He flipped to a long parchment sporting a widely-bordered rectangle packed solid with flourished writing. "These are my revised wills, for your edification."

Aaron dropped back into his chair, boney arms crossed. "Oh, so, you've deemed me worthy have you?" he asked, voice dripping with disrespect.

Freelander shrugged it off without a flicker. "Yes, I have."

Freelander's impermeable skin disarmed Aaron. His eyes danced down to the stack of papers. "You really believe it, don't you? No wonder you were always riding my arse when I was younger. If it weren't for you, I may have done my N.E.W.T.s," he accused.

"Just one of the reasons I deemed you a lost cause," Freelander stated. "Would you like to see a copy of the estate's inventory?"

"No," Aaron said. "I've seen the real thing enough times. Is this a bribe of some sort?"

Freelander propped his hands on his silk-clad knees and said, "Well, you may have gained enough drive to make something out of your life, but I see you still rampantly mis-ascribe motivation where your superiors are concerned."

Harry expected a cutting retort to that, but Aaron merely stared at the older man before him, face drained of expression.

"Why don't you speak with your mother," Freelander suggested, sitting up so straight as to put the papers on the table out of reach.

"I will," Aaron said after a beat. "I definitely will."

Freelander leaned elegantly forward to close the leather case. "Why don't we take care of the papers after you have done that. I think it will go better then."

Aaron frowned at this attestation of confidence. He sat forward, hands on hips. "Am I excused from your presence, then?"

Still unruffled and perhaps even amused but hiding it well, Freelander flipped his hand in the air. "By all means."

They did not speak as they departed, nor when Aaron saw Harry home. Snape had arrived for the weekend, relieving Aaron of his guard duty. Aaron managed a passable greeting to his old professor, and with one last pained glance back at Snape and Candide facing each other across the couches while sorting papers, followed Harry back to the dining room to use the Floo.

Harry continued the habit of quiet as he took up a spot on the couch beside Candide, pretending to read from a book he was already familiar with. He felt down and brushed off attempts at drawing him into the sparse conversation.

"Everything all right?" Snape finally asked. At Harry's shrug, he sharpened the edge of his voice and added, "You aren't still brooding about last week's detention, are you?"

"No," Harry tartly replied, and then whispered, "Detention."

"Grounding, as you will have it," Snape replied, but his tone softened and he considered Harry at length before returning to his own work.

Candide glanced around herself in consternation, sorting quickly though the files beside her. "I forgot the Witherhocks second quarter file. Drat." She set everything aside and scooted forward in preparation for standing.

Snape said, "I can fetch it for you. It is just upstairs, correct?"

"Thanks, Dear."

Snape returned with the file, unusually patting Candide on the back as he handed it over. He gave Harry a curious glance before returning to his previous seat. Harry expected that if they were alone, he would have been asked again what was wrong. Harry himself was beginning to wonder what was wrong. All he knew was that he felt vaguely annoyed and adrift, simultaneously in the mood to sulk and in the mood for an argument. Snape may very well have some insight and Harry would reach the point of availing himself of his piercing conversation, he just was not quite there yet. Watching his guardian's growing solicitousness with his pregnant wife eased his most immediate pain for some reason.

Just as Harry was bedding down his pets, Snape rapped on the door and entered without waiting to be called inside. He pushed the door closed behind him.

Said Snape, "You seem quite put-out, Harry, and I am at a loss to guess why."

Harry latched Kali's cage door and watched her burrow under her rags until only a tuft of violet showed, lost among the multi-colored fabrics.

"I'm not really in the mood to talk," Harry said while staring into the cage rather than make the effort at Occlusion. "Anyway, it's your birthday and I don't want to argue—in case it comes to that."

Shifting fabric indicated that Snape had crossed his arms. "It is no matter that it is my birthday," he observed dismissively. "It is more important to understand what is bothering you."

Harry cleared off his bed for sleep and dropped onto it, all the while keeping his gaze averted. "I don't know what it is."

"You deny that you are angry with your punishment-"

"It's not that."

"Candide believes it is."

"Really, Severus, it's fine," Harry insisted, glancing Snape's way. Snape's eyes narrowed and Harry glanced away fast enough to not give anything away.

"Why won't you look at me?" Snape asked.

Harry stared down at his bed where his feet and knees made ridges under the duvet. "Because I'm tired," he said.

Snape dropped his arms and said, "I will give you a bit more time to brood, but not much."

Harry wanted to challenge what methods he planned to employ at that time, but decided that may lead to an argument, so he said nothing but goodnight in response to the same.

- 888 -

The day began with stabs of sunlight but they were soon squeezed off by low, dense clouds. Lunch was to be the celebratory meal, so Harry slipped away well before then to arrange his gifts.

In his room, he wrote out two letters in a careful hand and addressed one to Snape and one to himself. He then laid everything out that he would need on the edge of the bed, all clearly in view, all straight and deliberate. His actions felt ritualistic and strange. Perhaps there was a point to be made with what he was planning, a notion that only reinforced the idea, given how constricted he had been by his guardian's rules, and how sharply he felt the betrayal Aaron was suffering. The letters had been difficult to write, too difficult. They should have been easy, but his mind had drifted off repeatedly while he worked at them. But they were finished satisfactorily enough and lay sealed in envelopes before him, waiting.

Harry took a deep breath, forced his lips to cock into a devious smile at the surprise this would cause, and took up the cane.

Harry stared down at the strange bed before him. The room was strange too, but he had been asleep, dreaming about failing a history examination at school, and was glad to be dreaming of something else. At least, he thought he was. He automatically picked up the envelope addressed to him. Letters were never addressed to him, so this was novel in and of itself. As he opened the letter, he noticed the clothes laid out neatly to the right, a fine white shirt, sweater vest and trousers. They made Harry more acutely aware of the flopping hand-me-down pyjamas he wore, complete with tears Dudley had inflicted on them while chasing Harry himself around the breakfast table.

The letter made very little sense.

Dear Harry,

This is sort of a strange letter, I realize, but try your best to understand it. You can back out at any time by following the instructions tied to the silver half-cane you are holding. The person who wrote this letter is you, yourself, only a much older version of you, twice as old. The magic cane cuts your age in half, you see. I (or we I suppose) have been adopted by the man who owns this house. He's a wizard, as are you, turns out.

Harry frowned at the letter and flipped it over to check the back of it, just for the heck of it. It was signed by himself all right. He kept reading, smooth, young brow creased deeply.

Well, I won't bore you with everything. Suffice to say you (or us) have got a bit old for having a dad, really, and he isn't quite ready to stop being a dad, so I thought to give him a younger version of us as a present for his birthday today. I know that sounds a bit odd, but I thought you might enjoy that too, as well as getting some nice clothes to wear (they are lying out on the bed) and a decent present, even though it isn't your birthday. Certainly you are owed some past presents.

Harry stared at the letter, finding it surprisingly hard to have his trials so well understood. He was intrigued by the notion of a decent present, given how familiar he was with his cousin receiving them.

I'll keep this short. If you don't mind having the afternoon with a real family, a nice lunch, and little present then take the other letter and go downstairs where the wrapped gifts are laid out on the side table and look for one with your name on the bottom of it. If you are scared and don't want to do this just follow the instructions on the cane and you'll be back to normal.

It was signed in a neater, smoother version of his own signature.

On the assumption that he was most likely still dreaming, Harry eagerly slipped on the nice clothes. He repeatedly stroked the sweater vest, amazed that it fit snugly instead of hanging down to his knees. He gazed at himself in the mirror inside the wardrobe door and thought that probably random strangers would not peer at him in sympathy or with disapproval upon seeing him like this. Attempts at patting down his hair failed, so he closed the door and steeled himself to go downstairs. The room was chilly so he tugged down the robe hanging on the bed post and shrugged it on, finding comfortable familiarity in having to avoid tripping over its excessive length. He scooped up the letter labeled Severus and pocketed it, figuring the odd label would become clear with time but certain it was not meant for him.

Harry, adept at sneaking silently to avoid his relatives, crept down the stairs and easily located the shifting and colorfully laden table of presents. After deciding the moving figures on the paper were harmless, he leaned close to check each of half a dozen packages from people named Minerva, Hagrid, Jiggers—which gave Harry a giggle, Candide, and Harry himself, until finally on the end found one with no top label, but with his name on the bottom. He sat down on the floor and proceeded to open it with slow relish.

Someone entered the room. It was a lean man with shoulder-length hair wearing floor-sweeping black robes. He spotted Harry there on the floor and stopped suddenly, scuffing his foot. He faintly shook his head and said, "I should not even ask, I think."

Harry fumbled in the deep pockets of his robes and held out the second letter. With confident strides, the man approached and took it from him. He tore and snapped the letter open with one quick motion and proceeded to read it. Harry went back to studying the brightly colored wooden box before him, bearing three giant interlocking cursive Ws on the lid.

When the man did not move right away after reading, Harry asked, "What's it say?"

To his relief the man replied easily, "It says, it is better to be in trouble for something truly harmless." He folded the letter away and stared at Harry rather disarmingly. "I do hope he does not think I prefer you to him."

Harry lifted his boney shoulders and dropped them again, hoping it was all right to not have an answer. With the man towering over him, Harry returned his attention to the box, which opened by sliding the lid rather than lifting. Inside, neatly sectioned areas held all manner of sweets: chocolates, fruit gummies, toffees, bon bons. Harry plucked out a toffee and happily unwrapped it.

Footsteps approached and a bark of laughter sounded. Harry looked up to find a plain, brown-haired woman holding her hand over her mouth as she peered at him. Grinning broadly, she said, "Drat, that's a good present. No wonder he wouldn't tell me what he'd got you."

"Don't encourage him so," the man complained, gliding over to sit on the couch where he folded and pocketed the letter with undo care.

"Encourage him," she echoed, laughing.

With some effort because of a swollen belly, she sat down beside Harry on the floor and examined the sweets.

"Can I have one?" she asked brightly.

Harry nudged the box in her direction and she selected a chocolate with hardy fingers. She smelled sweetly of ginger and powder, not at all like Aunt Petunia.

"Do you want one?" she asked the man, sounding to be teasing. When his eyes merely narrowed slightly, she cajoled, "Oh, come on, lighten up a little." She selected another chocolate and stood with well-practiced awkwardness. "Well, just leave him this way, then," she said, smile ringing in her voice.

The man replied wryly, "Tempting, isn't it? But it won't work. The cane's magic wears off in two or three weeks."

"Shame," she muttered. She shifted over to make space between them and said, "Come here, Harry," while patting the cushion.

Harry peered at each of them. The man's annoyed expression was amplified by his fierce profile. The woman was still highly amused.

As Harry took the indicated seat, she patted him on the back and said, "Come on, Severus, he'll be good practice."

"I doubt that," Snape said.

The woman slipped an arm around Harry, which he wanted to resist, but was not certain would be allowed, given how Dudley was forced to accept excessive affection, even when he wished otherwise.

"How are you doing, Harry?" she asked.

Harry shrugged again and waited until he had nibbled down a chewy licorice before replying, "I'm just dreaming, right?"

She patted his back. "That's the spirit. As long as you don't think it's a bad dream."

Harry glanced over his shoulder at the man, whom he felt very uncertain about. "No, not a bad dream," he said, because there was something superficial about the man's anger, unlike his relatives'. Harry felt like the man just wanted to make a point, rather than truly be cruel.

Harry plucked yet another toffee off out of the slot that had not grown short of any despite the number he had eaten. In fact, far from running out, the top one jostled up to the rim was yet another new flavor.

The woman said, "Hm, maybe you should slow down on those."

"Maybe you should cease until after dinner," the man added more sharply.

"It doesn't really matter," the woman said. "He'll change back before the sweets catch up with him."

The man stood up. "He's always resisted obeying anything," he said in the tone of Harry's aunt and her neighbor friends, proclaiming him a hopelessly delinquent cause.

Harry slid the box closed. The man turned and caught his eye with his piercing gaze, and like a candle melting from rigid taper to amorphous stub, gave in. Harry was not sure how he could tell this—partly it was his eyes and partly it was the way his shoulders relaxed. He stepped back over and stood Harry up and took the seat he had just occupied so as to look him directly in the eye.

"Are you hurt?" he asked, in an insistent and wholly new tone that promised nothing beyond stalwart assistance.

Harry, who had been badly beaten up by Dudley's friends over the last year, had finally learned to avoid them for the most part. He was only mildly bruised at the moment, from one incident where Dudley had run him over on the staircase on the way down to meet his dad, honking from the car for a promised trip to the cinema.

"I'm fine right now," Harry replied. His skin prickled because no one had ever asked him that before, certainly not in that tone.

Harry's shoulders were released, and the man said, using a conflicting tone of caring demand, "If you require anything, you will ask for it, correct?"

Harry nodded. The woman stroked the man on the side of the head once, lips cocked into a painful smile.

"Can I have another toffee?" Harry asked, finding the lure of the rare wooden box to be too much.

"No," the man replied in unison with the woman saying, "yes."

The three of them held still. "It doesn't matter," the woman pointed out again.

The man said, "It does matter."

Harry found them both funny all of a sudden. The man sat back and crossed his arms. "It seems we do have a few things to work out. I will not tolerate that level of pandering."

"But it won't matter in the end. Why bother enforcing discipline when it won't matter? It's just excess sweets. Look how skinny he is."

Harry stood there, trying to look skinnier and perhaps a little pathetic.

The man gave the woman a glare Harry now felt confident he could peg as superficial. This was confirmed when the man uttered, "Fine. Go. Ahead."

"Thanks," Harry said, and set the box on the floor to carefully select what to eat next, just in case the man changed his mind.

"He'll eventually run out," the woman said.

"No, he won't. That is a rather expensive box of sweets that cannot actually be used up."

Harry, sweet held out before his open mouth, stared at the man in surprise at this proclamation. "Wow," Harry said, peering cross-eyed at his fingers sinking into the sides of the toffee he held, thrilled at this magical notion.

The woman said, "I would expect that they could not afford to sell boxes of sweets that never run out; it would seriously cut into future sales."

"They are doing rather well, financially, as far as I can tell."

After a few minutes of silent observation of Harry while Harry studied each moving cartoon on the discarded wrapping paper, the man said, "He is the same as he is now."

"You think so?" the woman replied.

"I sometimes think the Muggles have it easy, raising children incapable of magic."

With too much emotion the woman said, "Do you really feel that way?"

A pregnant silence followed before the man said, "I'm not certain why it matters so," in a somewhat tentative tone. "I was simply making an observation."

"Well, it matters . . ." She faded out and Harry glanced up to see her face struggle while she found words. Her manner shifted to factual and she said, "You have no idea how much pregnant witches fear giving birth to a Squib, that they might inadvertently do something wrong and the child will not have magic as a result."

"I don't think anything you may do or not do could have an impact on that."

"You're rare in that case. Most of Wizardom believes otherwise."

A pause, and then the man said with a hint of accusation, "Have you been worrying about this?"

Her head pulled back, "Of course I've been worrying about this," she burst out.

Harry munched harder on the licorice without realizing it, taking piece after piece.

"Well, cease to do so. It does not matter," the man insisted.

"You really wouldn't mind if we had a Squib?" she challenged.

The man's expression retreated. That was a very hard question, Harry could tell. In a quiet voice the man said, "I'll admit I had not seriously considered that we might, but of course the possibility is always there." He fell silent again. "But rest easy that I would not blame you for it." His gaze shifted thoughtfully far away. "Perhaps partly in the interest of denying everything the bad company I have associated with in the past stood for . . . I will insist that I will not care if the boy is a Squib. I am amazed enough at having a son at all."

The woman gestured in Harry's direction, "Another son, you mean," she said with a hint of tease.

Snape looked at Harry. "Yes. Another son."

This made Harry's ribs hurt and for a second he could not breathe, but this was short lived as his next attempt at pulling forth a licorice felt clumsy and his hand as heavy as the time he had to pick himself up out of an icy cold puddle in his woolen mittens after Dudley dropped him there. Harry looked down and emitted a sound halfway between a squeak and a yelp. His hand was swelling rapidly, so much so that his fingers were threatening to disappear into the balloon of his hand.

"Yah!" Harry said, scrambling away from the box of sweets.

The man said, "And now we know how the Weasley twins can afford to sell boxes of sweets that never run out." He caught up with Harry, who was crabbing awkwardly away from the box with one hand while dragging the other, which now felt glued to a bowling, along beside. He made another noise of distress and curled around the cursed hand protectively.

The woman was crouching beside him as well, and she waved a stick at his hand, sending sparks at it.

"I doubt such a simple counter will reverse it. I expect the twins sell the antidote for even more than the exorbitant price of the sweets." He peered at both sides of Harry's globular hand then slid Harry's sleeve up to study his arm. "I can mix a curative easy enough, but I will need to fetch something from my stocks at school." He stood with a swish of his robes. "Keep him calm until I return, if you would."

"Come on, Harry," the woman said, lifting him easily to his feet and guiding him to the couch.

Harry's initial alarm was wearing off and he felt a bit silly until he studied his hand again and had to close his eyes at the horrific proportions of it. Her mantra of, "It's going to be all right. Just sit tight," worked remarkably well, especially since Harry had never had anything like it directed at him.

Harry let himself be held in a loose embrace while they waited. A clock ticking occupied the silence. Harry moved his hand slightly, surprised it did not hurt given how far his skin had stretched. He resisted trusting that something was going to be done to help him, maybe it would go away on its own, if not.

The woman stroked his head and said, "You'll be fine and then we'll have lunch."

Harry stomach rumbled at the thought. He propped his grotesque hand on the back of the couch out of the way. "I guess I should have listened to Mr. Snape," he muttered morosely. Harry, who had been sleeping when this whole bizarre thing started, scrubbed at one eye with his unencumbered fingertip and asked, "So, I really have a dad now."


"That's good," Harry replied, feeling too many mixed emotions to contain them all, so he closed his eyes and buried his face in the velvety, mauve-colored robes encompassing him.

She patted his head, "Yup, it is. We'll get you fixed up, have lunch and get you back to normal."

Voice muffled by fabric, Harry said, "The letter said I didn't need a dad any longer. I don't understand that."

"It's true in many ways, and not true in others."

Harry raised his head to say, "Do you consider that a reply?"

She laughed. "You're a cheeky one. Yes, I consider that a reply. How about this: you don't need Severus any longer except to bail you out when you get into trouble . . ." She shook his thin forearm to make his bulbous hand wobble. "Just like this."

"Oh," Harry said, thin mouth turning downward. "But that was that magical box's fault," he pointed out.

"You are very good at getting into trouble using all sorts of magic, Harry," she said in a tone that precluded argument, so Harry offered her none further. "All sorts."

Insistence that Harry was always in trouble came as no surprise to him and even gave him a feeling of rightness with the world. He sighed and rested his head back against the couch cushion.

Someone sitting nearby, jostled Harry awake. He blinked his eyes and tried to remember his strange surroundings. The man in black was sitting beside him. He uncorked an etched glass bottle with a satisfying plomp sound. Harry's heart increased its pace as he realized that had he been dreaming, well, he shouldn't be now, because he had just woke up.

Harry rubbed his eyes and squinted into the cup held out to him. It contained a viscous orange and grey striped slime that clung to the glassy surface of the porcelain cup. The woman handed Harry his glasses, which she must have removed while he slept. Harry did not really want to put them on given how disgusting the substance in the glass looked when he could not see it clearly.

The man held the glass out expectantly. "Go on," he urged. "It will cancel the curse on your hand."

Harry wanted to point out that drinking the offered stuff had to be worse that having bowling-ball hand, but he assumed like all suggestions he made to adults, this one would not fare well and would only bring on retribution.

Harry sat forward and took the cup but moved it no closer to his nose. It sloshed strangely in the cup; the colored layers slid and snaked over one another, refusing to mix. A black-stained, thin liquid swam in between the layers, pooling disgustingly when he tipped the vessel.

"You want me to drink this?" Harry asked, voice croaking.

Candide laughed and put her arm more firmly around him. "'Fraid so. It won't hurt you. It's just a potion."

"A potion," Harry echoed doubtfully, resisting more because the scent of brackish water had reached his nose, wrinkling it.

"We can leave him like this and just change him back," the woman suggested.

The man said in a questioning voice, "I thought we were going to keep him for dinner."

The woman froze, Harry could feel it transmitted through her arm. Then she laughed lightly. Harry glanced her way to find her eyes brightened by gladness.

"I guess, you have to drink up, Harry," she said kindly, but firmly.

Harry, holding his breath, gulped down the contents of the glass. As the potion slipped and swam down his throat he realized he had not done it to get back his hand; he had just done it for them, mostly for her. They seemed worth the effort, too much so, because if he was not going to stay, as they implied, he did not want the burden of these feelings later when they would be of no use, and in fact threatened to haunt him.

Harry, hand normal, slid off the front of the couch and knelt before the wooden box of infinite sweets, and simply stared at it, not wishing to touch it again right away.

"It's dinner time," the man said. "Come, Harry," he added, expecting to be obeyed, and Harry did.

Author's Note: Thanks for all the great feedback. It's really nice to have. Hope everyone is having a great new year (for those on the Gregorian calendar, that is).

Next: Chapter 20 -- Twenty Years Later, Part 1

"Harry," Candide said firmly, teeth clenched, gaze blazing. "Sit down."

Harry glanced at the empty floor behind him.

"Yes, right there," she demanded furiously.

Harry had never seen her in this full on angry mode, and never imagined it would be he who put her there. This jarred him out of angry into stunned. He sat down on the cool wood floor, fingers finding knot holes in the wide boards, which he grabbed hold of with his fingertips. He avoided both their gazes.

Chapter 20: Twenty Years Later, Part 1
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Chapter 20 — Twenty Years Later, Part 1

Harry, supporting his overfilled stomach, retreated to the couches and dropped on one with a groan.

"You did eat too much," Candide pointed out, sending an accusing glance at Snape.

Snape waved his hand in a manner that replied no matter.

Candide began ferrying the gifts from the table. "You should open your presents."

Snape sat beside Harry and said, "Perhaps we should return this one, before opening the others."

"Oh," she sang in disappointment. "Well, let's get a photo of you two, first." She strode into the drawing room and returned presently, holding a large black camera. With a clack she slid a holder of film into the back of it and said, "Okay, smile."

Snape subtly tugged Harry closer. Harry glanced up at him and the flash went off.

Harry rubbed his eyes, the light had filled the room and made his eyes water. Candide loaded another slate of film. "Hang on," she said, hovering the camera with her wand. "I want to be in the next one."

She sat on Harry's other side and flicked her wand at her side and the flash went off again. Harry peered through floating spots now. When Candide plucked the camera out of the air, Harry said, "More magic!"

"If you wish," Snape lazily said, and he hovered the cane down over the balcony. It came to rest on the floor at their feet where it rolled a few inches before coming to a halt.

"Are you ready to return to nineteen?" Snape asked.

"Maybe. I'm having fun. I don't usually get to have fun. Or have photographs taken. Can I see it?"

"The photograph has to go to the chemists," Candide said. "It doesn't come out right away."

"Oh," Harry said, disappointed. "I've never seen a picture of myself before."

She said, "Oh, there's your album upstairs." With a wave of her wand, she brought it along the same path as the cane.

Harry's face brightened upon opening it to the first page. "Is that . . . who's that?" he asked, not wanting to dare believe.

"Your parents," Snape replied neutrally, but he leaned in to give a tour of the photos. "Your parents many friends; they had no shortage," he added dryly. "Yourself at school."

"That's a different school."

"Yes, one you appreciated more than your previous one, I should think."

They sat like that until the album had been fully paged through, including the numerous loose photographs stuck in the back, and Harry blinked, disoriented by everything he had seen and all his questions which had received insufficient answers. "I think it's time to return you to that young man there in that last photographs," Snape said, setting the album gently aside. "Take up the cane if you will."

Harry bit his lip and unfolded the paper tied to the cane. With a last glance at each of them, he worked up some courage and followed the instructions. He grew taller in a small rush of wind.

Harry, at nineteen, glanced between the two of them. Candide spoke first. "Good present," she said. "I had fun. Severus had fun too, but he is going to pretend he didn't."

Harry set the cane on the floor in case it may decide to reassert its magic because he held it too long. "Am I in trouble?" he asked his guardian.

"No," Snape replied softly. "I AM a bit concerned that you decided that was an appropriate thing to do. Up to and including borrowing that from what must have been the Ministry Magic Artefacts Archive. . ."

"It was still in the work area," Harry glibly replied with a small smile. He waved the velvet sack down from his room and began the difficult task of hovering the cane into its narrow confines without touching it. "But I should return it right away."

"Do you think it'd be missed so soon?" Candide asked. "I think it'd be fun to see it on someone else I know." Her sly grin stretched her face.

Harry ceased hovering the cane into the sack and grabbed hold if it through the velvet with the curved handle still sticking out. He gave his overly serious adoptive father a looking over. "That's an excellent idea," Harry said, also grinning.

Snape's gaze bounced between them, disbelieving. He crossed his arms. "Surely, you have lost your minds."

Candide stepped over and tugged on his sleeve. "Oh, come now, Severus; it would only be for a few minutes. I'd so much like to meet your older, I mean, younger self."

"It isn't my fault you don't remember me," he sniped at her.

"I was buried in books from day one. I've told you that. I certainly wouldn't have paid any attention to a grouchy Slytherin five years ahead of me," she teased. "Come on. You're so secretive, and that only makes it more alluring."

"You truly do not know what you are asking for," Snape argued, growing angry. "I was not what most would define as 'good company' twenty years ago; it is unbelievable that you would seriously suggest that I do this." He gestured at the cane with his upper hand without uncrossing his arms.

Harry lifted the cane closer to his reach. "So, get on with it, then," he urged.

Snape turned his dismay Harry's way. "Why in Merlin's name . . .?"

"I'm curious too," Harry said. "I think it's a brilliant idea. Don't you want to be twenty again?"


"Well, we want you to be, come on," Harry cajoled. "Just for a few minutes. We promise to be nice to you."

Candide nodded in support of this, showing her broad teeth, she smiled so widely.

"It is not you I am worried about," Snape insisted, but he sounded worn down. "Merlin . . . you will regret this." He held his wand out in Harry's direction. "Take my wand."

"You don't need to do that. I could use a good duel," Harry continued to tease, pocketing the wand. "Sure yours won't just come with you? I had my old clothes on."

"As powerful as this device is, I do not expect it can regenerate a magical item from the past." He huffed and stared at each of them before shoving to his feet. "You truly will regret this," he repeated, angry again. "I am only doing this to prove it to you."

Good natured with anticipation, Candide said, "We'll take any reason."

Snape behaved even more uncertain when he turned to her. Harry interpreted this effortlessly and said, "Really, Severus, isn't it you who told me you can't run away from your past?"

"That would not have been me," Snape stated in a low voice.

"Oh. Maybe it was Dumbledore then." Harry held the cane out invitingly, face overtly pleading, which rendered it years younger.

Snape gestured and commanded of Candide. "Stand back."

Candide moved over, putting Harry between them.

"Much better," Snape said. He reached for the cane. "Fools, both of you," he snarled lightly before a small woosh replaced him with a different version in exactly the same pose.

No one spoke.

A much younger Snape, sallow skinned and thinner, glanced away from Candide and glared at Harry. He noticed the cane he held, still half inside the sack. Candide took hold of Harry's robe sleeve, not so much in alarm as in overwhelming amusement.

"Put it down on the floor," Harry suggested.

Snape did so, slowly, eyes taking in the room without leaving Harry for more than a second at a time. He wandered sideways around the hall in this manner. His robes were reminiscent of Lupin's,