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Chapter 3 — Twilight

In the candlelit dining room, Harry welcomed Hermione in from the Floo and helped her brush off.

“Been getting grimier as winter gets on,” she complained as she shook out her long bushy hair. She tossed her cloak over a chair back and gave Harry a quick hug. “How have you been?”

Harry shrugged, started to compose an honest response, but was interrupted by her going on with, “I’m so relieved the holidays are over and I finally figured out why.”

Harry straightened up and avoided frowning. “Why’s that?”

“Because,” she replied as she took a seat at the table. “I was so very tired of pretending things were all right with Ron. We agreed to not totally split up until the holidays were over. I went along with it because I thought it was a good idea, but it really wasn’t.”

Harry stood beside the chair across from her. “So you’re officially, finally split now?”

“Yeah,” Hermione said softly. “We agreed we could date other people and everything.” She pulled her jumper sleeves down straight and crossed her arms. “That’s why I’m here alone tonight.”

“What?” Harry managed despite not being able to breath quite properly as he tried to deal with what sounded like a misunderstanding he hadn’t imagined previously.

Hermione tossed her thickly clad arms. “You know . . . without Ron. So, how are things with Belinda?” she plowed right in and asked, which returned the breath to Harry’s lungs.

Harry sat down heavily and said, “All right, I guess. She wants it to be a bit more serious than I do at this point.” Harry felt very relieved to have someone to tell this to. “At the same time, she has so little time to get together. . . I don’t feel like we know each other all that well.” He met Hermione’s attentive and caring face and continued, “I think she thinks sex would be a substitute for having spent enough time really getting to know one another, which we just haven’t done. I think she really believes she knows me, but she doesn’t and I know I don’t know her all that well.”

Hermione had put her chin on her hands to listen even more closely. After a long pause she prompted, “Go on . . .”

Harry laughed. “It’s nice and all to have someone to talk to about Ministry things, but that might be all we have in common.” He paused. “Well, that and liking me.”

Hermione laughed. “Oh dear, you aren’t dating a member of your fan club, are you?”

“I might be,” Harry admitted, putting his own elbows on the table. “Want a butterbeer or a hot chocolate?”

“Butterbeer would be lovely,” she said.

Harry snapped his fingers and a warm bottle and glass sparkled in before each of them.

“You are turning into Dumbledore!” she exclaimed.

“No,” Harry denied, smiling slyly at his guessed timing. “Winky’s just very good at knowing what and when you want to eat or drink. The finger snap was coincidental,” he teased her.

“Are you sure?” she challenged, pouring for herself.

“Very.”

“How are things at the Ministry?” she asked.

“Power struggles are already starting with Fudge,” Harry complained.

“Already! He just got that position,” she marveled, aghast.

“Tell us about it,” Harry grumbled. And something is going on, he wanted to say, but held back, wanting to keep the evening away from such musings. “How’s your job going?” he asked in the hopes of being distracted by someone else’s troubles.

Hermione didn’t disappoint, going on for a long while about the various cases she was working on. “But I think I have to get a degree if I want to be more than a grunt doing research and write-ups that someone else puts their name on. That’s a big leap and I have to be sure this is what I want to do before making it.”

During the lull, Chinese egg rolls appeared. Hermione stared at them suspiciously. “Winky is really good,” she said before lifting one gingerly and biting into it.

Harry smiled, happy to see her pleased, happy to have her there. “You should come over more often.”

“Without Ron my social life is dropping to zero, so I’d like that.” She ate another roll. “So, when are you having another party?”

“Everyone has been asking me that,” Harry commented. “When I can manage . . .”

“What do you mean ‘manage’ . . . Winky does everything.”

“It isn’t that,” Harry said but found himself reluctant to explain, even to her, his difficulties with attracting dark creatures. He told himself it was because he wanted to keep the evening light. Dinner arrived then and the conversation stopped in favor of eating.

Much later, as she swung her cloak over her shoulders while getting ready to go, Hermione said, “It was really good to see you.”

Harry was sleepy from post dinner sherry and too much food, which he discovered only when he stood up to see her off. “You too.” He felt relaxed and safe and realized he had forgotten what that felt like.

“Have a party soon, Harry. You have interesting friends and they all come when you invite them.”

Harry smiled but behind it he was wishing that he knew for certain that he could stay this safe to make that possible. “Sure.”

She stopped getting ready to depart and let her hands drop. “Everything all right, Harry?” she asked, apparently seeing something he was trying not to show.

“Well enough,” he said, stopping himself from fidgeting.

“You’ve never been a great liar you know,” she said, sounding lightly exasperated. The hearth light was highlighting her dark brown hair with a halo of blonde. Harry wished that he could have this level of understanding with Belinda. But the events and years that had led to this instinctive friendship were unrepeatable, even should Harry wish to.

Harry said, “I’m having . . . these odd, I don’t know what to call them, not visions but . . .”

“Something with the Death Eater shadows?” Hermione asked in alarm. “Are they closer?”

“No, no, they’re all far off in Azkaban. And you know, Severus isn’t one anymore.” At her puzzled expression, Harry went on, “When he came back from nearly being killed by Avery, his shadow was gone.”

“Harry, that’s wonderful.”

Harry dropped his gaze, feeling vaguely guilty for that distracting change in topic. “Yep, it is.”

Harry needn’t have worried. “So it isn’t the shadows . . .” Hermione prompted.

“It is other things. . . dark creatures.” He waited for her reaction—it was a bit distressed. “When I get angry, or upset, or even just frustrated. Which, just thinking about it, is making me right now.” Harry listened closely but the crackle of the fire was the only sound, and he felt warm, still safe. “So if I push you into the Floo without warning, you’ll know why,” he added lightly.

She considered him deeply thoughtful. “Does Professor Snape know about this?”

“Yeah,” Harry said, which was true enough to pass her subsequent verification. “I don’t like having others around who can’t defend themselves. So at the Ministry it isn’t so bad. Just worrying less makes it less of a problem.”

She stepped closer, throwing her face into shadow. “Yes, but Harry, you can’t go on like this . . . can you?” she said with pained concern.

Harry held her gaze, which wasn’t easy. “What else can I do? Severus has researched it all he can . . .”

“Next time I’m at the London library I’ll look too,” she said, sounding motherly.

“I’ve looked there, but I’d appreciate any help.”

She stepped closer still and gave him another quick hug. “Owl, or silver message, or something if you need anything. Okay?” she asked sternly.

“Sure,” Harry replied, feeling touched and even a little embarrassed.

“You said Professor Snape was coming home tomorrow, right?” Hermione turned to ask before tossing in the Floo Powder.

“Yeah,” Harry assured her.

“Okay,” she said, sounding as though she might feel compelled to check on him if Snape wasn’t. “Take care of yourself, Harry. Normally I don’t say that because you have a house-elf and all, but . . .”

“I will,” he insisted and this satisfied her, apparently, because she finally departed.

Harry took himself up to his room right after; he had field work the next morning at 10:00 a.m. and he wanted to be well rested for that. As he settled into sleep he mused that Hermione without Ron was a more interesting Hermione than she used to be.

- 888 -


Harry impatiently waited for the lift to ascend to his floor; he was five minutes late due to the Floo diverting him to Knockturn Alley. He was tempted to owl Belinda when he arrived to ask what was going on with the Floo network. But he arrived at the office and found Tonks in a close discussion with Shacklebolt, and he found himself caring a bit less that he was late, if no one would notice his tardiness.

The chat, or more accurately: quiet debate, went on for rather a long while and Harry finally stepped back down to the workout room where Vineet sat, waiting patiently, gaze distant.

“Do you know who you’re paired with?” Harry asked him.

“I expect Mr. Shacklebolt,” Vineet intoned without turning to him.

“Oh,” Harry said, pleased by the prospect of being paired with Tonks.

The two Aurors came in soon after and Harry, his face carefully serious, gave his arm to Tonks to take him out on the pavements of London for patrol.

The streets were whipped by a cold wet wind and only a few others were out. The Muggles they encountered walked quickly without a glance at the two of them. Harry followed for many blocks beside Tonks’ sensible shoes that made no sound at all on the pavement. Nothing much happened as they went, except for Tonks stopping occasionally to look in a window—and she might very well have been shopping.

“I was thinking,” Tonks said when they stopped to wait for a walk signal, “of circling around to Diagon for a hot soup before continuing.”

“Sounds great,” Harry said, his arms now wrapped around himself. Today he only had his old cloak, which was only knee length and didn’t block the wind nearly as well as his usual one. It did have a good wand pocket, however, and Harry kept his gloved fingers near the edge of it all of the time.

Harry walked, pitched slightly into the wind. He began studying the passersby with more care the way Tonks was doing, as though looking for someone in particular. Two men dressed casually went by, arguing about a football match. A woman and her daughter went by, the woman keeping the girl close with a hand on her shoulder. Muggles all, Harry noted without much thought until a woman approached from a small square they were passing. It may have been the knitted jumper and shawl being just a little too handmade looking, but Harry was certain she was a witch. He slowed and waited for her to look up from the small notebook she held before her. He wanted to be certain, because it seemed like more than the clothes, really.

The woman looked up at the street sign, down the street and, just before Harry had to speed up to catch Tonks, she looked at him and her eyes did indeed go wide in surprise and recognition. Harry nodded in a kind of hello and hurried ahead. One last glance back before they exited the square showed the witch befuddledly scratching her head with a mittened hand.

Harry spent the rest of the walk to the Leaky Cauldron trying unsuccessfully to pin down what it was about each person that marked them as magical or not. By the time they passed through the marred old door, Harry had been distracted by his numb arms and he was grateful to be able to use a warming charm on them after they entered.

“Two soups, Tom,” Tonks shouted across the pub. She tossed her gloves down and took up a place with the other patrons crowded near the hearth. The rest of the table gave them suspicious looks, some of which changed to glowing, half toothed smiles upon recognizing Harry.

Soup arrived with a sloshing thunk of the big pot on the end of the table and Tom used a rusty ladle to fill two bowls. Harry pressed his hands to his hot bowl and held them there.

“Winter isn’t my favorite,” Tonks said, sipping directly from the edge of the bowl, ignoring her spoon. Somehow it didn’t seem rude when she did that. “So, how are you doing, Harry?”

The pair of old witches beside them were listening in. Harry shrugged. A brown owl fluttered by and landed on someone’s shoulder. A family emerged from the hearth in a blast of green and, with a shriek of metal corners on the hearthstones, towed their luggage to the stairs.

The soup break ended too soon and they headed out again. On the Muggle street Tonks said, “Maybe I should have asked Rodgers for an easy assignment like Kingsley did. Doing something would be warmer.”

“Shacklebolt accused me of attracting trouble,” Harry teased.

“You do attract trouble,” Tonks asserted. “But how are you doing?”

Harry, rather than admit to anything even though he liked hearing those words from her, said, “Can you tell witches and wizards from Muggles?”

“Muggles dress better and bathe regularly,” Tonks said. “If you haven’t noticed that, Harry . . .”

“I mean without those clues,” Harry insisted, forced to dodge around a large man holding his bowler on and staggering a bit.

“I don’t think so. I usually ask something that would be meaningless to a Muggle when I need to find out.”

“You can’t just tell by . . . feel?” Harry persisted.

“No. Don’t know anyone besides Moody with his eye, who can.”

“Oh.”

Not ten minutes later, Tonks pulled up short and stepped behind a magazine stand to pull out her slate tablet. “Cripes,” she breathed and then almost frantically glanced around. “Not an alleyway when you need one, is there?”

Harry pointed at a parked lorry from which the delivery man had just wheeled something inside a shop. Tonks grabbed Harry’s hand and dashed up the metal ramp, making rather a racket. A voice shouted from somewhere but Tonks had already pulled Harry behind a stack of pallets and Disapparated. Harry imagined a very puzzled lorry driver returning just seconds later.

They arrived back at the Ministry where Vineet and Shacklebolt were just stepping out of the marked incoming area at the end of one corridor. Without a word the Aurors moved close, pulled their wands, and disappeared.

Harry huffed, feeling useless, but he quickly let it go. Vineet intoned, “At least we are being deposited somewhere comfortable.”

“Yep.” Harry stood there thinking, then had an idea. “Assuming they are going to be gone for a while, I’m going up to the Minister’s office.” As he stepped away, he added, “In case anyone is looking for me.”

Despite it being a Saturday, the Minister’s reception area contained Belinda and two other assistants. “Harry,” Belinda said happily when she noticed him lingering there in the doorway. The other two shared knowing looks. Harry ignored them and stepped in.

“Working hard?” Harry asked, thinking that was a safe topic.

She straightened and met him halfway across the room. She was dressed as nice as a weekday in a dark green pantsuit and waist-length cloak. “Not so much. Saturdays are fortunately quiet. What are you doing here?”

“My field work got interrupted,” Harry answered casually, but the eyes of the other two assistants came up with what had to be vague alarm. Harry wondered if he went back down to the Auror’s office, he could find any written record of the assignment Tonks and Shacklebolt had been sent out on.

A figure stepped briskly out of the far office. “Fergus, do you have the . . . Mr. Potter,” Madam Bones said with a clear change in voice. “Just the man I wanted to see. Come in. Come in.” She turned immediately around, causing her monocle to swing, and headed back into her office. Harry followed slowly and took the offered tall leather chair that backed onto the real skylight by the wall. Bones hitched her hip on the edge of her desk and clasped her hand before herself. “So . . . have you decided?” she asked with interest.

Harry’s mouth fell open a bit and he worked his brain backward to what this might be. Her expectant expression didn’t help the process. “I’m not sure what you are referring to . . .” he finally admitted.

She smiled all the more, oddly enough, as though doting on him by doing so. “It is barely over three months away, Mr. Potter . . . Harry—the anniversary that so deserves to be a holiday.”

“Er,” Harry began, remembering her earlier threat in a rush. “I really don’t think we need a Harry Potter Day, Minister,” he quickly said, trying to sound reassuring rather than panicked.

She stepped around her desk. “I am certainly open to other monikers . . .” she stated easily.

“Um, Demise of Voldemort Day?” Harry suggested.

“A bit negative don’t you feel using his name?” Bones said. She put her monocle to her eye and looked for a parchment on her desk. “Ah, here it is. We have compiled a possible list. Let’s see: Dark Diminishment Day . . . no. Ah, Dastardly Demise Day, Dark Lord Death Day. No. Or how about Free-As-You-Please Day?” She shook her head and let her monocle fall. “Demise of Voldemort Day you think?”

Harry, who would accept any option that didn’t include his name, nodded vigorously.

“And how shall we celebrate? Parade? Honorary Quidditch match?”

Harry, who had not considered the second, hesitated but finally said, “I was thinking of an annual dueling competition . . . where I’d be the judge.”

“Well!” She exclaimed, pleased. “You have been putting some thought into this . . . I’m so glad.” She paced back around her desk, her polyester pantsuit making loud fabricky noises. “Dueling competition . . . dueling competition,” she muttered to herself. “I do think we can manage that.”

Harry almost folded in relief.

“Well, we’ll get planning on that,” Bones stated. Harry stood and followed her to the door. “I’ll let you know the exact time and such . . .” she said dismissively, to Harry’s dismay. Before he could even get out of the way, she said another goodbye, called one of her assistants into her office, and closed the door.

Harry approached Belinda where she was looking through the shelves. She said, “Want to do something tonight?”

“Can’t,” Harry said. “Severus is going to be home.” At her odd expression he quickly offered, “You could come over for dinner.”

Her expression remained strangely flat. “Um . . . Maybe not.”

Harry felt like he had stepped out of himself and now stood beside his own left shoulder. The files stacked on the floor across the room rattled and rustled, drawing Belinda’s and Fergus’ attention that way. Harry, for once, did not care if he, a poltergeist, or even a Shetani were causing it. Quietly, while stalling her from going over as well with a hand on her arm, he said, “What’s the problem?”

“Well, I don’t really want . . . well, Saturday night with Professor Snape doesn’t sound like what I was thinking of.”

Harry was back inside himself and feeling offense flowing into him. The files rattled again and this time Fergus jumped back in surprise since he had been bending over them to look more closely. Something snapped like small hungry jaws. Harry did not really wish to rein himself in; he wanted to let this all loose. He wanted to point out that her father wasn’t the best of company, frankly. A second later he did calm himself, for no one clear reason, perhaps just reason itself. He let go of her arm and her expression revealed that she realized she had made a mistake.

“Harry,” she said, disbelieving, “You are taking this the wrong-”

“No,” Harry only whispered but she fell silent. He had seen more in her eyes, a distaste and derision even although it was short-lived and she hadn’t really expressed it. “He’s my father now, you know,” he continued, sounding like someone else talking.

“Harry,” she said soothingly, “I know that. I didn’t mean-” A file exploded with an odd squeal, interrupting her. Looking between her colleague and Harry, she accused, “Are you causing that?”

”Not intentionally,” Harry said, backing up and thinking he had to escape here if he was going to pull himself back under control. She gave him a searching look now. Harry said, “Sorry, I have to go. Tonks and Shacklebolt may have returned,” he added quickly. If she said anything more, he didn’t hear it.

Back downstairs, Harry found Vineet rehearsing Eastern Defense Arts in the workout room. Harry stopped in the doorway, queerly relieved to be in the other’s presence. The workout room and the whole floor were quiet. Needing a distraction, Harry stepped in, sat down, and started talking about the first non-Ministry topic that leapt to mind.

“Have you told your wife about your power yet?”

Vineet came to a halt, mid-turn of his hips, leg raised. He slowly stood straight and replied, “Not precisely.”

“What does that mean?” Harry demanded a little sharply. “You’ve either leveled with her or you haven’t.”

Vineet considered Harry in silence, head tilted to the side. “You think it so important?” he asked, sounding honestly curious, in contrast to his sharp gaze.

“I don’t know,” Harry muttered and leaned over the desktop onto his elbow. Antsy and annoyed, Harry stared at the far wall.

Vineet crossed his arms. “Is anything the matter?” he asked.

Harry was certain that this man—who honored him above anything Harry had encountered previously, had changed his life path even because of him—didn’t want to hear the truth. “It’s hard to explain,” Harry hedged. “I just had a little tiff with Belinda, is all.”

“Ah,” Vineet uttered. “Such an inefficient process, this dating.”

“I’m not looking for a wife,” Harry pointed out. “Not right now, anyway. Besides, as much as I trust Severus, I wouldn’t send him off to find me one, even if I were looking or hoping.” Harry let his shoulders fall and found calm finally. Vineet returned to what he had been doing.

After watching Vineet hypnotically practice repeated movements for ten minutes, Harry said, “I wonder if their assignment is recorded anywhere. I’m darn curious.”

Vineet paused and glanced at the open door. “I did not find anything meaningful.”

“You looked!” Harry said, laughing.

“I was curious,” Vineet argued. “You think I should not be?”

Harry shrugged. “You seem so honest otherwise. . .”

“I did not open anything that was not allowed for me to see,” Vineet stated.

“Didn’t find anything, eh?”

“Not unless MM means anything to you,” Vineet said. When Harry shook his head, he explained, “It is coded in several places of interest among the assignment logs.”

“MM? Malfoy Manor?” Harry suggested. “Draco Malfoy seemed more worried than suspicious the other day when I ran into him. I don’t remember another Malfoy . . . sure it was MM and not NM?” At Vineet’s nod, Harry frowned thoughtfully.

Tonks and Shacklebolt were gone until 4:00 p.m. They Apparated in and sank wearily into their desk chairs. Harry and Vineet, who had been occupying themselves with drills and just plain silly spells, stepped in at the sound of their arrival.

“What happened?” Harry asked.

Tonks and Shacklebolt shared a look. “Nothing,” Tonks said.

“Absolutely nothing?” Harry demanded, remembering the last false alarm that interrupted their field shadowing. “Again?”

“Yep. Again,” Tonks said. “Why don’t you two head on home,” she suggested in a manner that came out as an order.

“Who’s MM?” Harry asked. When Tonks paused, Harry said, “It is on the log.”

With a slash of her wand the door boomed closed. Shacklebolt said, “Whitley and Reggie didn’t want it shared.”

“Want what shared?” Harry asked.

To Shacklebolt, Tonks argued, “We don’t know if any of this is even connected.”

“Still.”

“You going to squeal on me if I tell them?”

Harry and Vineet’s gaze shifted together between the two Aurors, spectator style. Shacklebolt crossed his arms before his broad chest. “I would rather you not put me in the position of having to divide my loyalties.”

Tonks put her wand back away. “They’re not going to keep it quiet much longer.”

“So you’re not going say?” Harry demanded after a silence, acutely disappointed.

“No,” Tonks admitted and appeared to move on to writing up a report.

Harry gestured between himself and Vineet. “Are we part of this organization or not?” he asked.

“No. Not fully. Not yet,” Tonks countered.

“It’s always years away,” Harry complained as best he could while holding his anger on a chokingly short leash. “Can’t join the Order, Harry, until you’re of age. . .”

“For the record, I disagreed with that,” Tonks said while Harry continued with, “ . . . doesn’t matter, Harry, that you’ve fought Voldemort more times than anyone else actually in the Order . . .” Harry went on despite her attempts to cut in. “And now you are saying that we have to wait two and half more years to find out who the enemy is? How many times is he going to have to try to kill us before you will tell us?”

“Finished?” Tonks snapped into the gap when he took a breath. Harry dropped his gaze and pulled himself together. “You are out of line,” she stated and it cut through him like a blade. With forced calm she said, “I will ask Reggie to revisit the issue of what you are allowed—of the vague suspicious, not facts—to hear. I trust you, Harry, up to the point where your discipline as an Auror is lacking. I honestly would trust Vishnu here a bit more to not do anything stupid, although in this case there isn’t anything personal for you, so perhaps you wouldn’t act on your own.”

The room fell silent. Harry stared at the floor, feeling less than nothing as the safest option. If he felt anything at all, he would be lost. Tonks said, “Go home. Next week I’ll ask Reggie to schedule a briefing for you. It’s overdue, I believe.”

Harry turned and departed without a glance at Shacklebolt, whom he was afraid would be disappointed in his tirade. In the workout room Vineet approached as Harry was collecting his bag. “I will be seeing you next week,” he said.

“Yeah. Have a good weekend—rest of weekend.” Harry Disapparated from there to home right then, not having the patience to spin that long in the Floo.

The quiet house immediately didn’t feel so. Harry pretended everything was all right and put his things away as he usually did. When he turned from rearranging his books and emptying his mind until the house felt calm, he found Winky at the door to the Library, looking skittish and more suplicating than usual.

“Master Harry waiting for Master to have dinner?”

“Yes,” Harry replied.

Winky nodded to herself as she backed away. Harry dropped onto the lounger and closed his eyes.

“Shall we move your bed down here?” a voice asked from the doorway some time later.

Harry must have fallen asleep. He rubbed his eyes and asked, “Who’s MM?”

“What?” Snape asked, and his voice shifting made it sound as though he had returned to the doorway at that question. “MM?” he confirmed. “No idea.”

“You’re certain you have no idea?” Harry asked while staring at the ceiling in a fit of calm control.

“Mad-Eye Moody?” Snape suggested.

“Doubtful,” Harry answered. “Besides those aren’t his real initials.”

“It was the first thing that came to mind. May I ask what brought the question up?”

“Something is up at the Ministry. Our field shadowing got interrupted by another non-emergency and they won’t tell us anything, but the logbook has MM in it.”

Their gazes locked for a long second. “If I knew I would tell you, Harry,” Snape stated in an almost soothing tone. “I’ll ask Minerva, who I presume is not the MM in question.”

“Thanks,” Harry said. He washed up for dinner and hungrily settled in across from Snape, who didn’t have a plate. “You already ate?” Harry asked.

“You needn’t have waited,” Snape said, rolling a tumbler of something between his hands.

Harry ate quickly, grateful that he was having a better time with the Dark Plane than earlier; Snape’s sharp gaze felt like a microscope. He filled his guardian in on what they had learned that week, lost in memory as he spoke. When he looked up, he found that Snape appeared worn a bit thin. So even though he wanted to talk more, he headed off to his room as soon as the plates disappeared.

As Harry awoke the next morning, he had a delayed reaction to his encounter with Belinda. He stared at the dim ceiling of his room and wondered what she was thinking right now. Noises came from the vicinity of the hearth that weren’t easily explained by the quiet glow of its coals. Reining in his emotions, Harry got up and went through his usual morning routine almost robot-like. On his trunk, he found the remains of his nice cloak. He rolled it up carefully and took it downstairs cradled in his arm.

Snape was most of the way through a cup of coffee, piles of post open and sorted before him. “Good morning,” he said without looking up.

Harry, numbed by the effort of keeping his emotions in control said, “I need Galleons for a new cloak.”

Snape raised his eyes to the bundle Harry held. He looked well-rested and bright-eyed this morning as he asked, “Why’s that?”

Harry unrolled the cloak to show him the missing half of it, the edge crinkled brown and ragged from fire. Snape’s brow twisted in alarm. “What happened?”

“Dragon,” Harry answered simply.

Snape studied Harry’s gaze as though looking for an alternative truth. “Goodness.”

“I don’t need so nice of one since I wear it while on duty, which can be hard on it.”

“Well, certainly. But do try to be more careful, nevertheless.”

Doggedly pursuing this necessary conversation, Harry admitted, “I made a mistake. I thought the green was out of methane.”

“Do be more cautious next time. I have a bit of extra gold I can give you,” Snape assured him. “After breakfast though,” he said as breakfast sparkled in on top of his pile of discarded envelopes. He caught the plate as it tilted and cleared a space for it.

Harry sat down and ate slowly, wishing otherwise, but conflictingly grateful as well, that Snape hadn’t noticed his difficulty. At least, he thought he hadn’t. After handing Harry a brightly clinking small sack, Snape said, “You seem a little out of sorts.”

Harry parted his lips and for an instant teetered on the cusp of telling him everything, but what came out was the easy excuse. “I had an argument yesterday with Belinda.”

“Ah,” Snape stated dismissively. He moved to make ready then with purpose, putting on his gloves and tucking his post into his breast pocket. “Should I ask over what?”

“You,” Harry went on, unable to censor himself. Snape’s gaze shifted sideways back to Harry. Harry said, “I don’t think she likes you.”

Surprisingly easy going, Snape commented, “Many people don’t.” He raised his eyes to above the mantel. “I don’t remember being exceptionally hard on her as a pupil.”

Harry shrugged. He didn’t actually know what Belinda’s issue was. In the end he hadn’t given her a chance to explain and now Harry wondered if he had overreacted. A long silence ensued while Snape hesitated with Floo powder in hand.

“Owl me, Harry, if you will.” He sounded concerned now, which made Harry feel much better.

Harry nodded that he would, and a moment later he was alone.

- 888 -


Still on automatic, Harry went to training the next few days and answered owls from both Hermione and Snape. His replies, when he reread them before sending them, sounded as though someone else had written them. His momentary instinct to confess to Snape was overwhelmed by the memory of Snape’s own derisive words when Harry had long ago asked what he should do if he started seeing the Dark Plane all of the time. Get used to it, I should think, still rang clear enough in Harry’s mind that he sent off the mundane letter exactly as he had already written it. He was so far inside himself that he didn’t even get angry when Tonks informed him that Rodgers had nixed a briefing for them right now on the department’s mystery investigation.

It was Wednesday before Harry was forced to face Belinda again.

“You’ve been very quiet, Harry,” Aaron teased as they ate their bagged lunches in the tearoom.

“That won’t last long,” Kerry Ann commented and nodded at the doorway.

Belinda stood there, looking vastly overdressed for this level of the Ministry. “Can I talk to you?” she asked Harry.

Harry, grateful that his trainer and Tonks were both off elsewhere, stood up and joined her in the corridor. He didn’t want to wander far, feeling an inexplicable instinct to stay close to his fellows while the two of them talked. Belinda backed up a few steps from the door and said quietly, “Look, I’m really sorry. I wasn’t thinking before I spoke. You want me to have dinner with Professor Snape, I’ll do that anytime.” Her eyes were earnest as she spoke and the waft of her perfume livened up the corridor.

Also quiet, Harry said, “I overreacted, I think.”

“I didn’t realize that was such a sensitive topic. But I’m not a recently adopted orphan, either,” she added with a light lilt. “Why don’t you come over tonight. I’ll make dinner.”

Harry thought that sounded like a terrible idea, to be alone with her where the slightest distress would bring disaster. But he couldn’t say no, it would undo the last thirty seconds and then some. “Sure.”

“Eight, then?” She brushed his arm with her hand. “Really, I didn’t mean to offend you. It’s just that seven years of Professor Snape at school is hard to get over.”

Harry’s lips curled slightly. “I understand,” he said, sounding robotic.

“I’ll see you tonight,” she said brightly, clearly happy.

When Harry reentered the tearoom, all eyes were on him. Kerry Ann dove in with, “So, how did it go?”

Harry had this dizzying notion that she knew everything from the weekend and just needed a little filling in. “None of your concern,” Harry heard his temper, otherwise bound and gagged by fear, state.

“Whoa,” Aaron breathed.

Sounding disturbingly like Belinda, Kerry Ann said, “Sorry, Harry. I didn’t mean-”

Crossing the warning track of his mind, Harry risked saying, “You already know everything, don’t you?”

Kerry Ann’s mouth worked silently. “It’s been going around. Don’t have a tiff in front of other Ministry staff, Harry.” This last was offered in a tone of truly caring advice and it pushed Harry into silence. She said, “Partner with me during the rest of drills. That will make you feel better.”

Harry actually smiled at her humor. “No it won’t,” he said.

That evening, Harry, roses in hand, arrived at Belinda’s door. He felt lightheaded, as though he were facing fate on a grand scale, as though the world was about to change irrevocably.

The door opened and a smiling Belinda welcomed him inside to the steam and heat emanating from the cook-top. She pressed a beer into his hand and they carried on an inane conversation while she finished dinner.

Through the meal, Harry was a bundle of nervous control. Repeatedly, he had to stop himself from fidgeting with the silver. He turned down a second beer on the theory that he needed a completely clear head. A wave of her wand sent the dishes to the sink before she took her pink cocktail to the couch and sat back. Harry joined her there, thinking he had been dumb lucky so far that he hadn’t slipped and that he shouldn’t push it further by staying much longer. She wrapped him up in a way that implied she didn’t expect him to go anytime soon. Harry kissed her back as a way of pretending everything was all right.

They remained that way, despite Harry’s wandering thoughts of concern. It was warm that close together, despite the draft from the flat’s old windows. Harry so wished to not be concerned. He had a gulp of her drink when a pause allowed for it, tempted to ask for his own and get blasted drunk in a fit of the hell with it. Bad emotions were leaching in as her hands touched his bare back. He disliked himself for feeling only attracted to her lovely features and not her. He hated that he wished she were Tonks.

A chittering sounded from under the cabinet beside the stove. Belinda turned her head, brow furrowed. “I thought I got rid of the mice.”

Harry sat frozen, even down to the hands he had around her. He began breathing faster. The chittering repeated and now a scratching as though of very needle-like claws could be heard too.

Harry stood up despite her grip. “I have to go,” he said, barely finding breath to say it.

“What?”

Harry couldn’t even spare anything to absorb her tone. “Really, I have to go,” Harry insisted. The sound of something dragging over the floor came from near the pantry. Belinda turned again, but at that moment, her neighbors trouped past outside in the corridor, talking and banging their door open and closed again.

Belinda angled her head up and stared at Harry, agape. “But why? What’s wrong?”

Harry pulled his shirt together and with fumbling fingers found a few buttons to hook, but they didn’t line up. He quickly retrieved his cloak. He needed to be alone to quash all of the emotion and close down the gateway. Fear for her was making that impossible at that moment and that ineffectiveness was feeding the fear.

“Really,” Harry insisted. “I’m sorry.”

She appeared alternatively concerned and upset. “What did I do wrong?” she asked, sounding a little angry now.

“Nothing,” Harry insisted. “It’s me. Really, it’s just me.” He Disapparated.

Harry reappeared in the main hall in Shrewsthorpe. The slithering, scraping noise sounded behind him, near the windows, breaking the silence of the house. Relieved to hear it, because it meant the opening had followed him, Harry relaxed and the sound stopped. Legs quivering faintly, Harry mounted the stairs to the first floor and entered his room. Kali was circling inside her cage, frantic. Despair was trying to grip Harry, but even that emotion might be deadly.

Letting Kali out to climb on his shoulder and leveling himself forcefully, Harry sat at his desk and opened the first book he found. It was Rules of Riot:— A Primer on Crowd Control. Despite the title, it was a rather boring text full of detailed instructions for dividing and quieting crowds of various sizes and states of inebriation. Harry wondered with ill humor if any of these quieting spells would work on a hundred vicious Shetani, should they come pouring into the room. The sounds quieted again as Harry chuckled darkly, making him chuckle more, but grimly.

The purple book was in the stack on top of the upper shelf, the stack that kept the roll-top from closing. He opened it and flipped through it, desperate for any help, something to close the gateway once open, or a spell to force the creatures back from the interstice. There was nothing, only theory and large words and supposition. The author had known but he had not understood. Disgusted, Harry tossed the book in the direction of the flaming hearth. It skidded on its open pages and stopped before the grate.

Harry took a slow deep breath. At this instant all was calm, but it would not remain that way. Shaking with frustration and angry helplessness, Harry took up a quill and a half sheet of parchment.

Dear Severus, Harry began but hesitated. He didn’t want to need help. He didn’t want Snape to know things had gotten this bad. He suspected that Snape couldn’t help in any event. A rattle like a snake’s tale sounded from the hearth. One could pretend it was the fire, but Harry strongly suspected it was not. Snape would have to manage, Harry insisted, using that faith to quiet things again. Merlin, he thought grimly, how had he let it get so bad.

I’m sorry I didn’t say anything sooner, but I have to say it now: the Dark Plane has become unmanageable. It haunts me constantly and I don’t know what to do.

Harry imagined an upset Belinda, pacing her flat and frowned.

I’m afraid to be near anyone, even Winky avoids me. I know you told me to “get used to it” if I sensed it all the time, but I cannot. I can’t control my emotions enough anymore. It used to be just anger and ill temper that brought the plane too close, but now it is any emotion it seems.

I’ve reached my limit. I need help. I don’t know what you can do, if anything, but I cannot continue like this.


There, he had said it. Despair tried to settle over him, but he shook it off with faith that his adoptive father would think of something. At the least, he could potion Harry to sleep until something could be done; then Harry wouldn’t have to worry about hurting anyone. The faith that Snape would do what needed to be done, no matter the cost, relieved Harry no end. He gave the letter to Hedwig and urged her to her best speed.

Next: Chapter 4 -- Refuge

In Shrewsthorpe, Snape immediately went up to Harry’s room. Harry lay across the top of his desk, head resting on his arm, his pet draped over his shoulder. Kali lifted her head at Snape’s approach, blinking heavy eyes at him. Rather than awaken his charge, Snape hovered a trunk from the corner and packed it with the contents of the wardrobe as well as the many stacks of books scattered about the bedroom, including the purple one that looked forlornly destined for the fire. After another moment of studying the sleeping Harry, Snape went downstairs and hefted the books lying out in the library.

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