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Chapter 38 -- Blood and Water

In a sprawling but decrepit flat, at a rough table that looked to have been nicked from a run-down pub, Maurdant Merton sat fidgeting with a small pile of charmed bracelets. He had a stained, old book open in front of him. He had not turned the page of the book in over an hour. His truculent expression did not ease when his cohort entered carrying supplies. Debjit gave Merton a worried glance and stashed his wand away from having unlocked the door.

“Go see how things are progressing,” Merton grunted.

“I’m sure it will be the same as this morning,” Debjit quietly pointed out. He ignored Merton slapping the table with the flat of his beefy hand. “I am uncertain what the hurry is,” Debjit pointed out with care.

Merton pushed himself to his feet. “The hurry is that the Ministry is wounded, but will not be for long.” He gestured at the photographs on the cover of the Daily Prophet showing workers moving about the atrium reception area making repairs.

Debjit placed the grocery sacks on the counter, scaring up a variety of insects. He placed one black sack with the label Clipper & Clydewhistle closer to Merton. “The special order you asked for.”

“Took you long enough to return with them. I could have run the errands that fast myself.” He pulled out the objects: two necklaces and a beaded glove and studied them each by holding them in the light. He scoffed as though pleased but then said sourly, “Go and see to things. I am losing patience.”

Debjit meandered through the teetering piles crowding the peeling vinyl floor until he reached the back room where Svaha sat contemplating a crate of ceramic vessels in the manner of a connoisseur. She held one aloft and stared at it, paying no mind to her husband’s entrance.

“He asks the same question as before,” Debjit said, generating no reply. “He grows more impatient,” Debjit then pointed out. Head bent, he circled the room, pausing at a crate with broken vessels visible within. Not all underneath were broken. “You could placate him by offering some of these.”

This statement attracted Svaha’s full attention. Her suspicious gaze fell upon Debjit. “Do you wish me to offer those to him?” she challenged.

Debjit’s shoulders moved uneasily in independent circles. “No,” he replied in a whisper.

She raised high the vessel in her hand. “This one will keep Master happy for a while.”

“It is more powerful?” Debjit leapt in to ask. “That has been his concern since we lost our guest,” he quickly added to explain.

“Not more powerful, no, but it does not need to be. It is far more . . . efficient, shall we say. It does not waste any energies unnecessarily. It is aware, you might say. It is attracted to movement, and it will wait for its chance.”

Debjit also contemplated the uplifted vessel. “That should please Mr. Merton, yes.”

“Merton wishes to . . . make a point,” Svaha said. “But the chaos itself is so much more satisfying.” She fell silent, but finally added, “Perhaps a little less precision would be better. Randomness, entropy, they create such lovely fear. Hm, yes . . .”

- 888 -

Bright and early Monday the four second-year apprentices were shuttled to the training room by Rodgers. “We are going to try for some normalcy today, although . . .” Here he glanced at his watch with a pained expression. “Just for an hour . . . at most. Thursday, this room is being used for the applicant's examinations, so no training then either.” The four of them took their seats as Rodgers flipped through a ragged stack of parchments. “Somewhere there’s a schedule of what we are supposed to be doing.”

Aaron raised his hand.

“Yes, Mr. Wickem? My, such formality . . . yes, what is it?”

“Can Tonks be scheduled to do some additional sessions of Animorphus spells?”

“We hadn’t planned on any, why?”

Aaron put his hand down, clasped them together before him in the mode of a schoolboy, and said, “Well, if Harry is going to go around disguised as me, I want to be able to go around disguised as him.” He shot Harry an overdone smile.

Rodgers replied, “I don’t think that is going to be a regular occurrence.” He put the parchments down with a huff. “Blast, I forgot a memo I need to send. Why don’t you start with your drills and we’ll go from there.” He rushed out.

They paired up, Harry with Vineet, and began their old drills. For someone who seemed a continent away, Vineet sure could put a lot behind an attacking spell. Harry, out of habit, held back on his own attacks. Vineet waved them to a stop and said with strange dull anger, “You are patronizing me.”

“No,” Harry replied, immediately annoyed. “Really, I’m not. This is just drills. If Rodgers announces that we are doing . . . I don’t know, knock your drill partner into the wall drills, I’ll oblige,” Harry explained, waving his arm and going for a satisfying sarcasm. He held off on pointing out that Vineet himself apparently thought that was the drill instruction.

“What’s going on?” Kerry Ann asked. The two of them had halted as well.

“I don’t know,” Harry said, rubbing his hair nervously. Vineet appeared even more stoic, which Harry suspected masked that he was approaching some kind of breaking point. This made him realize that he was close to one too. “Look,” Harry said, more gently, forcefully calming himself. “I would never patronize you. Why in the world would I do that?” They were arguing about nothing, Harry was certain. Vineet was bothered by something remote from his complaint and, apparently, Harry was too.

Vineet lowered his wand and his head and turned away. A minute later he turned back and bowed faintly. “We were instructed to do drills, I believe.”

Harry sighed. “Yeah.” Before he could ask if Vineet really wanted him to pour more power into his spells, Vineet said, “It is your prerogative, certainly, how to make your spells go.”

Aaron and Kerry Ann resumed their own drills. Harry hesitated, wanting to say more, but having no clue how to say it. He had pretty good idea what was irking his fellow, but discussing it would have to wait until they were alone.

Harry dodged Mr. Weasley the entire day, finding it too difficult in the light of day to wish for their inevitable encounter. He and Tonks only crossed paths once and did not even manage a word, just a smile, but she appeared far too busy for any meetings with the boss, so Harry hoped she’d avoided him too.

Late that afternoon, they were gathered in the office and Rodgers informed everyone that Rogan was to be allowed back on part-time duty. During the Wizengamot meeting, Rogan had passed a test similar to Harry’s truth serum one and due to the shortage of Aurors, the Ministry were willing to give him light, supervised duty. Harry found this news a little uplifting, even if Rodgers sounded grudging and annoyed as he explained it to the apprentices. That announcement dispensed with, Rodgers dug around on his desk and pulled out a roll of thick vellum. "And this too, a new wanted poster for Merton." He pinned it up on the board by the door over the top of a notice regarding revised rules for magical pet licensing.

"That's an even older picture than the last one," Kerry Ann commented.

Indeed, Merton appeared to be in his late thirties with a thin mustache. He was standing outside the Quidditch World Cup stadium, smiling and holding an armful of recently purchased memorabilia.

"Seventy-six, we think, based on the banners that sometimes fly by on broomstick over the stadium," Rodgers explained.

Kerry Ann joined Harry in leaning over to peer closely at the picture. "Wears a lot of jewelry, doesn't he?" Kerry Ann observed.

Harry would not have noticed that; especially not through the binocular straps, the miniature Quidditch players dangling on cords, and the many overloaded bags of other sparkling sports-related goodies. But it was true; Merton wore three necklaces, multiple bracelets on each arm, and several tie pins, even.

"Maybe he's a puff," Aaron suggested.

"It's not that kind of jewelry," Kerry Ann stated authoritatively.

Harry remained staring at the poster longer than the others. It struck him as off that this seemingly innocent, childish even, wizard had created so much trouble and was prophecy bound to create more. Harry could not imagine pulling his wand on the man in this particular picture. This differed greatly from remembering facing a younger version of Voldemort; Harry could clearly imagine pulling a wand on Tom Riddle, Hogwarts student. Maurdant Merton, Quidditch fan, did not seem to warrant any offensive spells.

- 888 -

On the way out in the evening, Harry tugged Vineet aside. “I want to talk to you, come out somewhere . . . to a pub.” In a fit of defiance, Harry suggested the Leaky Cauldron. In the past simply being around frequently in public had worked to reduce the attention he attracted. He hoped it would work again and what better strategy than to start with a companion who would accept the attention.

Harry led the way to a corner table but felt observed there, even though there was only a hag and a table of chatting witches on the other side of the room and an old wizard by the door. Harry ignored his bad sense and asked his fellow, “What’s going on with you?”

Vineet responded only after the old man with a long staff had finished his slow journey to the back door and the door had swung closed again. “Nandi has left to live with my mother.”

“Vineet, that’s . . . your mother? Why your mother?”

“She left her family when she married me,” Vineet pointed out as though it were obvious.

“Oh, sure, right . . . Look, I’m sorry. I hope I didn’t make more trouble coming over that day. If you want me to write her a long letter explaining that you really weren’t that much help at Malfoy Manor and kept giving me disapproving looks the whole time, I can do that.”

Vineet stared off at the front door as he spoke. “Deception would not improve the situation. She was already upset at finding out my magic was strong.”

“It would be true, not deceiving. But why didn’t you tell her about your magic?”

Vineet leaned back against the dusty wood wall, scaring a spider out of a nearby web. “She seemed . . . happy . . . to have more magical utility than myself. I thought it pleasing to her to believe it, and it seemed a harmless belief. Everything is still as clear to her, you see, as it was to me in the beginning, so she was not pleased to learn of my deception.”

Tom the bartender put two mugs of mead on the bar and nodded at Harry to come pick them up. “Maybe it would have been harmless if other things had not happened,” Harry said, mostly just to say something.

“Perhaps, but I remember now that all deception is bad.” He crossed his arms and, perhaps in the spirit of his last statement, said, “I have lost track of why I came here at all. It has grown most confused from such clarity at the beginning.”

“I feel that way sometimes too,” Harry admitted. He excused himself to pick up the drinks. Tom would not let him pay, but Harry dropped coins on the bar anyway.

When he returned to his seat, Vineet said, “But you have the prophecy to fulfill. I have heard mentioned that you are now supposed to destroy Merton; that prophecy says this is true.”

“That doesn’t make a purpose any easier to find,” Harry argued. “It just limits my freedom.” Vineet puzzled that and did not appear to believe it. Harry said, “Trust me on that. It isn’t a path; it’s bondage.” He sipped his mead. “I’m sorry about Nandi.”

Vineet shook his head. “We grew apart, I think. She cannot understand that I have a different outlook now—an indistinct one. It was very clear before.” He peered into his mug. “I miss that calm state.” He took a rather large swig and said, “On the other hand, I comprehend much more now. Perhaps I should return to own-Dharma,” he mysteriously said, sounding as though the mead had already taken hold.

“What’s that, or where’s that?” Harry prodded, glad his friend was talking at all, even if Harry could not follow all of it.

“Every caste and sub-caste once had its own morality. So a merchant was not the same as a priest was not the same as a knight. A knight was allowed to do violence without violating his Dharma because it is necessary to his role, essential, in fact. I refused to understand this before, and Nandi still refuses.”

Harry scratched his head. “You came here to become an Auror, thinking you could avoid violence?”

“I came here because I thought I needed to. I was magically weak then, or so I believed. I could not do much harm.”

“I did need you,” Harry pointed out. Vineet nodded deeply once, like a bow.

Vineet worked his way down through his mead, eventually stopping to say, “Valmiki may have been right. He told extensively about Rakshasas.”

“Did he?” Harry asked with interest. “Where can I read him?”

“Everywhere,” Vineet said, waving his arm. “He is . . . similar to your Homer.”

“I’ve never heard of him,” Harry admitted.

Vineet pondered this. “You who command Rakshasas,” he muttered. “Do you have a monkey army too?”

Harry felt he was being baited, but took it easily. “No, not that I know of,” he answered gently.

Vineet put his mug down, unfinished, as though done drinking. “I feel I am in the right place, but I am most confused. You should rather have monkeys. You are upside down.”

“You think about things too hard,” Harry said. “That’s your problem.”

Vineet sat in contemplation of that assertion, while Harry shook his head and made his way through his own drink, withholding an overly willful observation about how similar he was to Hermione. Tom gestured from the bar to ask if they wanted a second round. Harry shook his head.

The door from the alleyway creaked open and Draco Malfoy appeared, eyes sliding keenly around the room as he walked. He came to a stop upon seeing Harry.

“Mr. Malfoy,” Harry said in greeting. Malfoy tipped his head sideways in acknowledgment before going to the bar and sliding upon a stool. He slouched there without removing his high-collared cloak, even though the room was warm.

“Ready?” Harry asked Vineet.

“I should return home,” Vineet intoned as they both stood. Harry thought it a little sad to realize that his friend was going home to an empty flat. He gave Vineet a pat on the arm just before he disappeared.

Harry sauntered over to Draco. People were beginning to arrive for the dinner hour and both doors were opening and closing. One group hesitated upon seeing Harry, but shuffled to a remote table with lots of backward glances.

Harry slid onto the stool beside Draco who asked, “How’s it feel to be one of the disdained?”

Harry shrugged. Draco was turning his small drink glass around and around in the fingers of one hand. It was empty already.

“Another mead, Harry?” Tom asked.

Harry nodded. Draco said in a grudging tone, “My former head of house is faring all right, I hear.”

“He’s fine.”

“Surprising,” Draco said. “Your luck must be rubbing off on him.” He flicked his glass across the bar and Tom scooped it up before it could hit the floor and refilled it, all in one motion. This let Harry’s unattended mead mug overflow and it left a large puddle when it was plunked down on the bar. Draco sipped this time, but his posture continued to curl wretchedly.

When Tom went into the back room, Harry asked, “Anything I can do for you, Draco?”

Draco snarled quietly, “Why would I want anything from you?”

Patiently, Harry replied, “It was just an innocent offer, Draco.”

Draco turned back to his glass and began rolling it between his palms. “‘Innocent offer’,” he mocked. “We got what we deserved, you mean.”

“I didn’t say that,” Harry stated flatly.

“The Ministry did.”

Harry did not want to get into that. It was certainly true that the Malfoys were keeping bad company, but the issue of just desserts was too thorny a topic. Harry wanted to ask more about Merton, in case Draco knew something more, or had heard something more. After all, the Death Eaters had raided Merton’s weapons stash, so they must have known where it was. Harry fell thoughtful, wondering how much his department knew that he did not. As to asking Draco anything, Harry followed the lead of the Auror’s he had shadowed for a year, that of building good will before asking for any big favors.

Patrons came to the bar to order and the ones that recognized Draco glanced in confusion at the two of them sitting there. Harry gave each of them a pleasant nod, no matter what their reaction. Most people nodded back automatically, no matter how befuddled they were.

Harry’s second drink went down faster than expected and he thought he should stop. He placed some coins on the bar and slid to his feet. Draco did not react and, given his dejected state, Harry felt a stab of something in the vicinity of sympathy. “It must be quieter at your place now, at least,” he said, trying to connect.

Draco shook his head. “You don’t know anything, Potter,” he said.

“Sorry,” Harry said. “But the offer’s always open.” He walked away.

At the door leading out to the Muggle street, he encountered Ron, red-faced as though exerting himself. “I’ve been looking for you. Come to the Burrow with me,” his friend insisted.

“Er, how about . . .” Harry turned as though to suggest a drink, before remembering that he had decided he was done with that for now.

“Mum wants to see you. Come on . . .” Ron took his arm and they Disapparated.

Harry resisted being pulled forward from behind the shed where they had arrived. “Is your dad home?” Harry asked.

“Nah, he’ll be at work for a while yet.”

Harry stopped resisting and as they walked, asked, "Do you know if Ginny is allowed out for the examinations? The Auror exams, that is?"

"Yeah, she'll be there. McGonagall wouldn't listen to Dad, turns out."

Inside the kitchen, Harry received a grand hug from Mrs. Weasley. She kept one arm around him and led him into the sitting area. Harry’s feet failed him when he came face to face with Percy and he was glad for the clutching arm that kept him from tripping.

The awkward silence was ended by Ron explaining, “Mum insisted he apologize.” Ron crossed his arms and glared disgustedly at his brother as though he were a Skrewt. “The rest of us had a very different idea about how to handle things and most of them would have involved his NOT being able to speak again let alone-”

“That’s enough of that,” Mrs. Weasley interrupted. “You remember what Dumbledore always said.”

“Oh," Ron suggested with too much innocence, "something about preferring Muggle sweets because the flavor was always the same?”

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it,” Mrs. Weasley countered.

Ron did not give any ground and the delay gave Harry much needed time to gather his wits. He was surprised by how affected he was to be in Percy’s presence. It was more than anger or hatred, he felt ill and uneasy, and given an open choice would take escape over a battle, which surprised him to realize.

Mrs. Weasley was saying, “He always gave people a second chance.”

“SECOND,” Ron said, long neck stretched toward his mother. “Not HUNDREDS.”

During all of this, Percy stared at the walls, the floor, anywhere but at the others in the room.

“Percy,” Mrs. Weasley prompted when Ron hit a lull in his snark.

Percy appeared to screw himself up for some great task. Harry decided that Percy disliked being there as much as he and Ron disliked Percy being there, and that made him feel a little better; mutual hatred was so much cleaner.

Percy’s Adam’s apple bobbed a few times. “Sorry,” he finally said with bare meaning, still avoiding anyone’s gaze.

Harry could feel the air rush out of Mrs. Weasley as she sighed. She patted Harry’s arm. “Harry?” she then prompted.

“What?” Harry sharply asked, reacting strongly to what he construed to be some kind of expectation from him.

“Do you accept Percy’s apology?” she asked.

Harry mutely stared at her. His insides were churning as though the creatures from the Dark Plane were emerging inside of him. The very notion of forgiving Percy made his limbs cycle between tingly and numb and for a blazing instant he was dead grateful to have been an orphan if it had spared him being asked such ridiculous questions.

Ron’s appalled expression anchored Harry, but Mrs. Weasley’s pure-hearted question would not let him answer “no” even though his very fiber screamed to do so, as well as add a long list of choice words beyond that. “I . . . I’ll have to work on that.” You have no idea what happened, Harry bit his tongue on adding, mostly because he did not feel like recounting everything.

His disgust seemed to disappoint her, but it also warned her off, because she released him with another quick pat on the arm. With one short glance at Percy, that later upon review, Harry wished he had studied further, Harry headed for the door, Ron on his heels.

Outside beyond the shed, short of the field used for Quidditch, Harry stopped, confused by Percy’s last facial expression. He had finally met Harry’s gaze, or perhaps just had lacked warning to look away. Harry had a fleeting impression that Percy was deeply befuddled. Not defiant, as expected, but confused.

“Don’t want to stay for dinner, eh?” Ron asked.

Harry turned to his friend. “Well . . .” Harry hesitated, curious about Percy, even though he wanted to forget everything and go home. “Trouble is, I’m avoiding your dad.”

“You are?” Ron asked, sounding slightly hurt.

“Yeah. He found out about Tonks and me . . . I don’t know really how he did . . . and I’m not in the mood to be told quite yet to cut it off, or else.” Harry rubbed his hair back and forth. “I haven’t decided what I’m going to say if he insists.”

Ron gave him a sympathetic crooked frown. “Tough decision.”

“Yeah, I jumped into the file room twice today to avoid him, too,” Harry admitted.

Ron laughed. “You could stay for dinner if you disguise yourself as our long lost cousin, Alfred Flimnap, whom no one has seen in three decades.”

Harry said, “Inventing stories all evening would be harder than simply talking to him.”

More soberly, Ron said, “Threatening to quit would put Dad in a very bad position.”

“Sure about that? Half the Wizengamot wishes I were gone.”

“What do you mean? The vote wasn’t that bad,” Ron retorted sharply enough that Harry realized his exaggeration could be a dangerous sign of self-pity.

“Yeah, you’re right. But I should go, anyway. Have a good night. Don't kill your brother . . . you're mum would never forgive you, even though I might.”

- 888 -

Over the next days, Harry avoided encountering Mr. Weasley as best as possible, but knew he could not manage it forever, nor should he really be trying to. Mornings they had a little training and afternoons, he was assigned to go on patrol with Rogan, who had been allowed out on low-risk patrol duty. He had asked to be paired with Harry, who did not mind, really.

They strolled the busy streets of one of several large cities, mostly in the Muggle parts of them. Occasionally they encountered magical people, who were easy enough to spot by their cloaks or just the home-spun look to their clothing. Harry, who could identify them even without these clues, found that he rarely encountered any magical people who could completely pass for Muggle. Once you looked closely enough, some clue would give them away.

They were strolling along a relatively quiet street of offices when Harry sensed that the blonde woman approaching must be a witch. She carried a course sack from the greengrocers in her arms and wore an intent expression, as though thinking far ahead. Upon spotting the two of them, also intentionally quite identifiable in their cloaks, her steps faltered. She caught Harry’s gaze and her brows knitted in consternation. With a hazardously quick glance for traffic, she put her head down and crossed to the pavement on the other side of the road. Harry, who did not wish to increase her alarm, kept himself from following her too long with his gaze. Rogan was studying the map of their assigned route and had not noticed her at all.

Harry sighed and let his eyes stray over the brass solicitor’s plaque on the nearby brick wall they were passing. The witch’s actions were causing a slow, inexorable sink in his mood, one he could not find any means of arresting. Patrol ground slowly on and by the time they returned to the Ministry, Harry found himself in a dark mood and needing action as a distraction, followed his trainer, Rodgers, to the file room after offering to help carry the stacks that had accumulated in baskets on the floor beside the door. In the quiet dimness of the file room, Harry said, “Can I find out what’s happening with the Merton investigation?”

Rodgers finished sliding two thick files back into their proper place before replying. “We don’t have any new leads.”

“But what about the interrogations of the D.E.? They should have turned up Merton’s hideout, or how else did they get their hands on his stuff?”

Rodgers slapped the file he held down on top of a cabinet and leaned heavily against it. “You have the right kind of mind for this type of work, I’ll admit.” He stared at Harry before saying, “We did find his hideout, or one of his old ones. It had been abandoned. They hadn’t had time to take the kiln, so we’ve been tracking all purchases of new ones.”

“Can I see the place?” Harry asked.

Rodgers shrugged. “Not much to see.” He returned to straightening files by knocking each of their edges repeatedly against the cabinet top. The cabinets sometimes knocked back if you got the rhythm right.

“I can probably tell if its the place they were in most recently,” Harry said.

“Could you?” Rodgers asked, sounding doubtfully disdainful.

Harry took a deep breath. “I was seeing the place out of Voldemort’s eyes while he was there.”

“Good point,” Rodgers conceded, and proceeded to empty the basket of files. Harry slowly worked on filing another basket-full, waiting for a response. It came eventually. “I can take you down there.” Rodgers glanced at the clock. “We can go now if you like.”

“I would, sir,” Harry replied in his most polite manner.

Rodgers verified that Blackpool was able to cover the office before he took Harry away. They arrived in a large open space lit by high windows with billows of dust dancing in front of them. Harry immediately began exploring. In a small side room he stopped dead. The piles of discarded objects stacked precariously along one wall gave him a terrible bout of déjã vu. He stood stock still, breathing in the dust until he could identify the matching moment. It was during his one-year review examination when he was trying to remember the filing rules and had let himself drift to visualize the list he knew was posted on the file room wall. This vision had invaded instead.

“This is the place,” Harry said to Rodgers, who had come up behind him. Harry resumed investigating. The dust was disturbed in some areas more than others, indicating occupancy. A crate, reinforced with wire fencing, sat in the corner of another very familiar room. “This is where they kept Lockhart when he started to get difficult to handle.” He pointed at a cleared spot on the floor. “They wrapped him up with a torq here, away from Nagini’s cage. The scene was crystal clear to Harry, just as though it were his own memory.

Rodgers didn’t reply, just followed Harry around. Harry glanced back and found his trainer’s expression difficult to read. Harry went on with the tour, ending up in the pottery area where discarded vessels littered the floor. “The kiln’s gone,” Harry said.

“We took it,” Rodgers said. “No sign that they tried to come back, but we weren’t taking any chances.”

“Looks like it was occupied by several people,” Harry said.

“Would you recognize them if you saw them?” Rodgers asked, suddenly animated as he looked around. "Interrogations turned up only pseudonyms that didn't match any of our files."

“I never saw any faces,” Harry said. He reviewed his memories from that time. The only face he had seen at all had been an outline reflection in the windows of the Dursley house. The fire had been burning inside of Lockhart’s mind, Harry realized, that’s why it showed only in the dream reflection.

They returned to the ground floor. A shadow fell across the floor as a silhouetted head moved before one of the small dusty windows. Rodgers raised his wand and Harry put up a hand to halt him, even though he was too far away to reach. Harry whispered harshly, “Muggle!”

The shadow ducked and scuttled away. Rodgers lowered his wand. The both stepped over to the window, which was embedded in the large delivery door with its rusted and dangling machinery for hoisting goods inside. There was no sign of movement on the road outside.

“Convenient skill, Potter,” Rodgers commented.

Harry thought again of the witch who had avoided him on the road and kind of wished he did not have it. He could have excused her actions away, if he could have assumed she was a Muggle. He turned away from the window, focusing on more important things, and said, “I don’t know how I’m supposed to destroy Merton. I don’t even know how to find him.” He fell thoughtful and added, “I hope I didn’t miss my opportunity when he had Voldemort with him. I may have had a chance then of locating them . . . had I understood.” Harry’s voice dropped to nearly inaudible at the end of this admission.

“We’ll find him,” Rodgers said. “Hopefully before he re-arms and comes after us again . . . which I fully expect he will do.” Rodgers coughed. “Let’s go, Potter,” he said, sounding fully the mentor, which eased Harry’s renewed worry.

- 888 -

Pamela Evans answered the knock on her door and found a familiar, cloak-draped, willowy figure waiting on the doorstep.

“Pardon the unannounced arrival,” Snape said, “But I am in need of your assistance with Remus.”

Pamela reached for her handbag. “Sure. What’s—?” she began, but had Snape stepped inside and he Apparated her away before she could finish the question. They arrived in the back of a small, smokey pub. “Where are we?”

“Dungruddy. There is a Floo Node here that we can use. But I must speak with you first.” He steered her towards a chair at a broken table. Worn out dart boards and more obscure games crowded the walls and no other tables were set up nearby.

“What’s happened to Remus?” Pamela asked in concern.

Snape sat back and could not help lifting his chin. “He is being obstinate; that is the primary problem. He does not know I am here. If Harry were not on duty today, he would be a better choice for this errand, but alas it is me instead.” Pamela propped her chin on her palm and waited for him to continue. He said, “Remus has a most annoying penchant for enriched self-pity. It is a habit he has always had.”

“I’ve never noticed that,” Pamela countered, sounding defensive.

“Fortunate for you that he suppresses it in your presence then,” Snape dryly stated. He huffed and rubbed his forehead which then necessitated shaking out the wide sleeve of his robe. “It is like this: Remus was attacked again by the same werewolf who attacked him as a child.”

“What!” Pamela started to stand in alarm and had to be grabbed by the arm and urged back to her chair.

“I didn’t do that properly, I see,” Snape said. “He sustained only minor injury, but he is slightly altered.”

“What?” she asked again, less alarmed but still hyperactive.

“Well, I see he does matter greatly to you . . .”

“Of course he does. So what do you mean he’s altered?

Snape sat back, which dangerously rocked the old chair he was in. “Greyback, the werewolf who bit Remus, enjoys being a werewolf. He has cultivated in himself anti-cycle Lyncontropic features. What that means,” Snape explained, “is that he is partially werewolf all of the time. When he bit Remus again recently, he passed on some of that, although quick application of a toxin-wicking potion reduced the end effect considerably. Nevertheless he is behaving as badly as expected: wallowing in self-pity and refusing to go out or even consider visitors.”

“What . . . can I see him?” she asked.

“Yes, of course. Just be aware that I’m certain he assumes you will reject him.” Snape stood and shook his robes straight. “He is remarkably thickheaded,” he added with a mutter.

“And you’re not?” Pamela added sarcastically, garnering a very dark look. “Save it for a Muggle who’s easily intimidated,” she said. After Snape continued to glare at her, she asked, “Can we go?” She then relented, “Please?”

Snape shook his head and led the way to the hearth in the large, little-used kitchen. A plump woman sat on a stool tapping a keg and arranging colorful hosepipes that led through a gap in the wall. She nodded at them and went back to her task. Snape added a log to the glowing coals, brushed off his hand, and poured a few ounces of Floo powder out into Pamela’s cupped palms.

“What are we doing?” she asked.

“You have not traveled thusly, I see,” he stated. “Simply toss the powder onto the flames, announce Hogwarts, and step into the hearth. Do remember to duck . . . this one is a little low.”

She stared at him, at the course granules in her hands, at the fire quickly growing to tall, hot flames on the bark of the new log. She stared at her hands again, closed them around the powder, and with an expression of determination, did as she had been instructed.

Pamela wandered into the center of the Great Hall, bumping into benches and tables because her eyes were raised to the ceiling and did not want to waver. Snape arrived in a burst of flame and stood beside the hearth until she had finished ogling.

“So this is Hogwarts,” she marveled. “I wanted to see this place since the first time Harry mentioned it. Amazing.” She joined him, slowed by taking in the medieval wall decor and the banners as she walked. “You won’t get into trouble bringing me here, will you, because I’m a Muggle?”

“Thanks to Harry, you have the same status as our recently departed caretaker. So, no, I won’t. Come along.”

By the time they arrived at the third floor, Pamela was thoroughly enthralled. “Geez, I wish I were magical. Oh, what a grand place.”

“You would not have liked it Sunday night quite so much, I assure you.” He rapped on Lupin’s door. Lupin’s response was slow in coming and difficult to hear. Snape opened the door and gestured for Pamela to enter. “Someone to see you,” Snape stated. He received only the shortest glimpse of Lupin’s distressed expression before he snapped the door closed again, shutting them in together. Glad to have that dispensed with, he returned to his own office to finish recreating some missing examination notes.

“Hey, Remus,” Pamela said. She ignored his trepidation but could not help letting her eyes roam over his heavy brow and furred ears.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, clearly stressed.

“I wanted to see you. See that you were all right. You didn’t owl me and tell me you were hurt or anything. It’s been three days, I’m told. You didn’t think I’d want to know?”

Lupin glanced at the closed door where Snape had just disappeared. “I wasn’t . . . ready to see you.”

“Why not?” she asked, being intentionally obtuse.

He snorted a mirthless laugh. “You’re kidding, right?” he asked, hurt anger coming through now.

“You think I care about your looks?” she asked, coming up hard against the other side of the desk.

Lupin dropped his gaze and let it wander over the objects in the room. “I’m hideous. I was hideous inside before, but I learned to cope with that. Now I’m hideous on the outside as well. Nothing more than an animal.”

“Remus, be reasonable,” she argued.

“I’m a regulated creature, you know that? Our Ministry has a department just for things like me.”

“Wow,” Pamela snapped sharply. “You are proving Severus Snape absolutely right; you know. He said you were wallowing in self-pity.”

Lupin’s anger grew hotter. He stood and said, “And why shouldn’t I?”

Pamela leaned forward over the desk. “‘Why should you?’ is the real question. Do any of your friends here care what you look like? Does Professor Snape care? He came and fetched me to talk to you.”

Lupin’s shoulders hunched and in a wounded voice, he said, “He would have no business caring about such a thing. Being an ex-Death Eater leaves precious little room to be criticizing others about much of anything.”

Pamela froze. “What did you say?”

Lupin bit his lip, which showed his vaguely pointed teeth. “Never mind. I don’t think they wanted you to know.” He deflated then and paced to the window.

Pamela laughed nervously. “Didn’t want us to know? Wait just a minute . . . you’re not seriously suggesting Severus Snape was one of those ones . . . helping Voldemort?”

Lupin scratched his ear and the long hairs that stood off the top edge of them now. “I spoke out of turn. Please don’t say anything. I don’t want to use a Memory Charm on you.”

She took a step back from the desk. “You’d do that?”

“No. I wouldn’t; that’s why I’m asking you not to say anything. Just forget about it.”

“But, you’re saying—”

“Forget it,” Lupin repeated, running his triangular nails noisily over the stone sill.

Pamela put her hands on her head, partially because of the noise. “I can’t understand any of you people,” she complained bitterly. “Why in heaven’s name would Harry-”

“Pamela, drop it,” Lupin snapped. He had control of himself now and came around the desk. “That was a bad mistake of mine, although you probably would have found out eventually . . . it’s common knowledge now.” He fidgeted. “But, I cannot imagine you don’t mind what I have become.”

“I don’t care. You haven’t changed inside.”

Lupin held up his hand and studied its rough knuckles and dark nails trying hard to be claws. “I loath myself. I cannot pretend with this constant reminder.”

“Pretend what? You’re the sweetest bloke I’ve ever met who isn’t also a pansy. The night you were guarding Harry at the pub without letting him know . . . that was really touching, and I realized what a keen sense of duty you have. I like that. Most men I know don’t have any of that.”

“You don’t mind not getting out?”

“We can go out,” she insisted. “We . . . have to select the clubs carefully, but I know some where you would look pretty mild.”

He turned his hand over, back and forth. “I could mask some of this, too,” he said sadly.

“It just hurts to have to do it,” she said, speaking for him and taking his hand. “I understand.”

Lupin smiled painfully. “Severus really brought you here, on his own?”

“Yup, but had I known . . .” she shivered.

“I can’t figure him out,” Lupin said. “Harry’s really changed him.”

“Explain this to me,” she said. “Why in the world is Harry now his son?”

Lupin added his other hand to her two. “I can’t explain that. Bad histories run deep around here, insurmountably deep most of the time. I guess they saw strengths in the other that each needed and had the courage to take a chance.”

She grasped his hands tighter, ignoring the sharp points. “I’m willing to do that too, you know.”

He bowed his head, appearing to be trying to accept that.

She said, “I’m not sure I want to be fetched by Professor Snape next time, however . . .”

Lupin laughed lightly. “You’re safer with him than you are with me.”

She dropped her hands and propped them on her hips. “Really?”

“Yes. He’s always the same, unlike me, who becomes a monster.”

She rubbed her arms and squared her shoulders. “Can I see this monster?”

“You will leave after you do,” Lupin stated softly, emptily.

Pamela frowned. “I understand you’ve been hurt before, but it hurts me when you don’t give me any credit.” She let that sink in. “When’s the next full moon?”

“Twenty-eighth, Monday. But I am not ready for you to see.”

“Well, it’d be nice if you’d let me see, then you’ll know for certain that I don’t care.”

Lupin closed his eyes, found his chair with his hand and sat down.

“You all right?” Pamela asked.

Lupin nodded sharply. “Yes. Fine.” He waved her off as though wanting to preserve his pride.

“Dinner tonight?” she asked hopefully.

“In, I assume?”

“We can go out if you like.”

Lupin shook his head before studying his hands yet again. “I can work on a disguising spell for these . . . but it will take some time. Perhaps in would be better.”

“I can’t deny that would make it easier, but I want to have dinner with you either way.” He didn’t respond, so she said, “Seven, then?”

- 888 -

Harry sat on Hermione’s couch with his feet propped up on the low table, Kali draped beside him. He had readings again, something he had grown to appreciate not having during the recent chaos. He snapped the book closed after five pages dense with the historical timeline of wizarding criminal law in Northern Europe. He felt a twinge doing so, as though he owed his recently deceased fellow Aurors more effort.

“That looks like a good book,” Hermione said from where she sat eating crisps at the small table in the kitchen area. “Can I borrow it when you’re done?”

“You can have it now,” Harry said.

“You’re finished already?”

“I’m done for now,” Harry announced.

She laughed. “That sounds like the Harry I remember.” She came over to take the book.

“I got used to not studying,” Harry said, trying to patch over her implied criticism. “You know; while I was trying to stay alive and save the world and everything.”

Harry settled into one of his old books on advanced blocking, and quiet descended on the flat until a knock came upon the door. Hermione let Headmistress McGonagall into the flat. She had to bow to fit her tall hat inside the door and immediately doffed it. Hermione took it and her cloak and quickly hung them up. “Would you like tea?”

“I would indeed, my dear. How are you, Harry?”

Harry had stood to greet her, and now said, “I’m fine, ma’am.”

She smiled. “You’re a resilient young man, Harry, for which we are all terribly grateful.”

“Do you need to speak to Harry alone?” Hermione asked from the sink where she was heating a teapot with her wand.

“I am here to speak to you, young lady.”

“Shall I . . . ?” Harry asked, gesturing at the door.

“No, please remain, Harry. I didn't intend to chase you out.” She spoke with more than her usual graciousness, and with dignity accepted a seat at the flimsy little table.

Hermione poured a round of tea. McGonagall cradled her tea cup in her hands a moment. “Even in the summer, I do so love a nice hot cup of tea. Don’t know how the Americans can drink that awful iced stuff.” She considered Hermione before glancing at the title of the book lying face down beside Hermione’s teacup. “You have become quite the law expert, I hear,” McGonagall said.

Hermione shrugged. “This is Harry’s book.”

The headmistress turned to him. “They are educating you quite broadly, Harry, that is good to know.”

Harry shrugged next, having been quickly defeated by that book.

McGonagall sipped her tea and pushed it aside. “I have a proposition for you, Hermione. Don’t feel compelled to answer right away. As I was plotting out this visit, it occurred to me that I have not kept in as good of touch with you as I always intend to with our best students. Everyone’s lives are so busy, it seems. For instance, I have no idea how happy you are in your current position.”

Hermione appeared to search for an answer. Harry jumped in with, “She’s been happier. She’s not challenged enough.”

“That’s not exactly true, Harry . . .” Hermione argued. “But it isn’t what I expected to be doing. Researching cases for precedent and learning everything about one arcane subject so I can write it up and someone else can take credit for it.” She frowned into her teacup. “But it IS challenging.”

McGonagall clasped her hands before her. “I wonder if you would be willing to try a bit of a change?” When Hermione blinked at her curiously, McGonagall said, “I was wondering if you would consider taking Professor Flitwick’s old job . . . as Charms instructor at Hogwarts?”

Hermione gaped at her. “Who . . . me?”

“But, of course, you, my dear,” McGonagall said affectionately. “You were the best student Filius could remember ever having. That alone qualifies you in my mind. The board will take your excellent test scores into due consideration, of course.”

Hermione glanced at Harry, who was grinning broadly. “Did you know about this?”

Harry shook his head. “But I think it’s a brilliant idea.”

McGonagall patted Hermione’s hand. “As I said: no rush on an answer.”

“I . . . I don’t know what to say,” Hermione stuttered.

McGonagall stood and said. “Don’t say anything at all, then. But please owl me with any questions of any sort.” She turned. “And you, Harry, owl if I can do anything at all for you.”

“Thank you, Professor,” Harry said, feeling the weight of her concern.

She smiled more deeply. “Severus was right, I believe, when he said we don’t deserve you, Harry.”

“Severus told you that?” Harry asked.

She winked. “Perhaps I was imagining things.”

When she was gone, Harry sighed. Hermione muttered, “I second that sigh.”

“You should take the job.”

“I have to think about it,” she said, standing to clean up the tea. “It’s a big change.”

“You aren’t happy now, though.”

“I’m not happy about a lot of things, Harry.”

Harry scratched his head. “That’s no reason not to change things to fix some of it.”

She hovered the teapot up onto the high shelf above the stove. She then laughed lightly and sadly. “First spell Flitwick taught us, remember?”

Harry rolled his eyes. “Yup, I remember too that you were the only one who could do it.”

She dropped into her chair at the table, wand held out before her. “It was really easy.”

“And bloody useful. Honestly Hermione, I think Flitwick would pick you specifically to take his place.”

“I’ll think about it,” she said, slipping her wand back into her pocket.

- 888 -

The following morning Harry went directly to the Auror’s office since the training room was set up for the Apprentice testing. Although no test takers had arrived yet, an air of anticipation hung about the whole floor. Shacklebolt was covering calls and Kerry Ann sat on Tonk’s desk, reading the newspaper. Harry took the chair of the desk, leaning back to stare above the door where Munz’s wand hung from a strand of ribbon. Presumably, Whitley’s and Moody’s would be there too if they had not been lost. Frowning, Harry’s thoughts wandered down the paths that made up the last year. Stretched out, they seemed far longer than twelve short months.

Kerry Ann lowered the paper. “How are you doing, Harry?”

Harry shrugged. “You?” he prompted.

She nodded with a sly smile. “I have fewer complaints than usual,” she said.

“Ambroise still around in England?” Harry asked.

“Back and forth. He’s been given a temporary diplomatic assignment so he can visit longer.”

Harry grinned in return, unable to resist, given her clear glee. “So, have you figured out what’s wrong with him yet?”

At this, Shacklebolt turned his chair with a squeak to stare at Harry in curious dismay. Harry defensively pointed out, “I’m only quoting her from before.”

“Well . . .” Kerry Ann mused. “He doesn’t like beer. Insists on wine.”

“Tragic,” Harry commented.

“Yeah,” Kerry Ann agreed with false sobriety. “I think I can live with it though, with some time to adjust.”

Shacklebolt’s chair squeaked back into place and his dark head shook for many seconds. After their conversation went on for several more minutes, he said, “Go see what you think of the applicants. You’ll have a say in who we accept.” As they stood, he added playfully, “Since we lost Nagini, we’re thinking of using Harry as a substitute phobia.”

Kerry Ann laughed. “They fail that one, they are definitely out.”

Harry managed a soft scoff, but the comment stung, even as a jest. It prodded painfully at his memory of the witch going out of her way to avoid him during patrol. Harry followed Kerry Ann down the corridor and composed himself before peaking inside, hopeful of finding Ginny at one of the desks. She wasn’t there yet, but five others were, some of whom Harry remembered from last year's exam and some Harry knew from Hogwarts. They all looked up expectantly at the two of them as though presuming something official was about to happen.

Kerry Ann asked one of them, “Study harder this time, Tridant?”

A man in the front row crossed his arms. He had cropped blonde hair and looked more Muggle than the rest. “I was dead sure it would be easier. I’ve seen how the Ministry operates and couldn’t imagine the requirements were so high.”

Taken aback, Harry turned to Kerry Ann to see her reaction. She was grinning. “Just you wait,” she said.

Harry couldn’t shake the notion that Tridant would make a poor team player. He then hoped none of them had been that cocky. If they had, by the time Rodgers had knocked them around for a month, they would have forgotten to be.

Kerry Ann tilted her head to the side and said, “You know, we have a new test this year. You have to beat Harry in a duel.”

Harry gazed confidently as the man jerked his head over to him, even though he was six years Harry’s senior. “Really?” Tridant asked, dubious.

“Well,” Kerry Ann added thoughtfully, “there is consideration that will not allow anyone into the program, so the requirement may be simply surviving three minutes against him.”

She sounded very believable, and Harry was glad no one packed up and departed. A few had grown rather glazed expressions. Far less cocky, Tridant said, “I may be able to manage that.”

Some newcomers entered, stutter—stepping upon discovering Harry there. They took their seats. Moments later, Ginny entered, hair damp, robes askew, rushing and glancing at the clock.

“Harry!” she said in pleased surprise and gave him a hug that was limited by her bag.

“What are you carrying in that?” Harry asked.

She flipped her sizeable handbag open and said, “Pens, quills, paper . . . I didn’t want to run out of anything.”

“Nothing from the twins, I hope,” Harry said in all seriousness.

She pulled her head back as though insulted. “No, of course not.” She moved to one of the desks and dropped her bag over the chair-back. “You know,” she said to the room, “I knew Harry when he was fun.”

Before Harry could compose a reply, Kerry Ann stepped closer to him and said, “Really? I’d like to have seen that.”

“What do you mean?” Harry retorted, glancing between her and Ginny. “I’m not any less fun than I used to be.”

Ginny stared at him in disbelief. “You used to not care about the rules . . . broke them all the time. You’re too serious now.”

“I haven’t been sticking to the rules all that much,” he pointed out.

Kerry Ann leaned in and told the assemblage. “Only Harry gets away with things. Don’t get any ideas.”

Several nodded in clear understanding of this. Harry spared a glare for his fellow apprentice too. He decided he should be civil and let the ribbing go, asking Ginny, "How are things at Hogwarts?"

"Good," Ginny replied flatly.

"What, you live there?" the Asian wizard beside her asked.

"Yes," Ginny smartly replied. "Someone has to guard the place."

Harry suppressed a smile and again suspected that him and his fellows were originally closer to this level of independent cockiness than he cared to admit. Someone in the back raised her hand, a small witch who was probably the oldest one in the room. “How many are being accepted this year?”

Harry replied, “There is no set number, but it is usually one or none. They let in more last year due to losses during the war.” He did not point out how understaffed they still were; he assumed they knew that and pointing it out could sound like they might be willing to lower the requirements.

More people arrived, followed by Rodgers carrying a stack of examination parchments. “Everything on the floor except the quill you are going to use,” he commanded. Everyone obeyed immediately as Harry and Kerry Ann made their departure, Harry with one last wave at Ginny, who was fiercely biting her upper lip as she accepted the thick, rolled parchment. In the back row, Askunk was pulling out quills and ducking her head as though hiding.

As they re-entered the office, Kerry Ann said, “Ah, to think that was us.” To Shacklebolt she said, “Aaron and Vineet really that late?”

“I sent them out on assignment, and now I’m sending you two.” He handed them a slip of parchment.

- 888 -

Saturday, following instructions in Snape’s owl, Harry Apparated to the main hall of the house in Shrewsthorpe. Blue tarpaulin still covered the gap in the roof, but the thick beams had been patched with notched, bright blonde wood and metal plates. Harry checked the progress on the other rooms which felt forlornly empty with most of their possessions packed up and stored elsewhere.

Snape arrived minutes later. He immediately went to check the post and Harry found him sorting it in the drawing room. He halted this as soon as Harry entered, tossing the stack he held down onto the desk. “How are you?” he pointedly asked.

Harry shrugged. “All right, I guess.” He had been thinking that he would like to discuss with Snape how after so many Rita Skeeter articles denouncing him as dark, one witch’s actions bothered him so. The topic proved awkward to open up, so he did not try. Instead he said, “Ginny thought she did well on the examinations, especially the blocks.”

Snape let this slide by. “The Ministry is treating you all right?”

Harry nodded. He did not want to share his difficulty with avoiding Mr. Weasley, because he did not want Snape to know why he needed to.

Snape's demeanor darkened and narrowed as though sensing his reticence. He said, “My father wishes us for dinner tomorrow. “

“I imagine,” Harry said. “I have duty in the morning, but I can probably get away in time.” Then glad to cause more distraction, said, “Have you heard from your mum?”

“She sent an owl. The news of Voldemort’s return finally arrived at the coven.” He leaned hard on the back of the chair, his fingers gripping tightly and said with clear loathing, “Must be nice to live in such an oasis of unreality." He released the chair back and stood straight. “Any changes with regard to the prophecy?”

Harry shook his head, glad to have something to talk freely about. “I’m afraid I may have missed my chance,” he confessed. “When I was in Voldemort’s head I should have been able to see everything they were doing. But I didn’t know. It was all so confusing.”

“You were not at your best,” Snape agreed.

“You thought I was under an Imperio,” Harry pointed out, finding fresh annoyance at that memory.

“I was not so far off. But I also could not see through to the truth.” Snape pulled out the chair and took a seat before the stacks of post. “Trapped in my own oasis, perhaps,” he muttered.

“How long before the house is fixed up, do you suppose?” Harry asked. He was keen to move home again.

“Quite a while, I think. Weeks, at least, before it will be habitable.” His nose was already buried in a letter.

“After that you’ll be returning to Hogwarts again anyway,” Harry said, feeling disjointed to consider that. He was craving normality as though it were chocolate. In a normal world, people wouldn’t fear him. And if the prophecy were not yet fulfilled by the time Hogwarts' term started, he would be dealing with that alone again as well. Well, not alone, but not with help he could trust absolutely.

Snape pondered him before saying, “Do you wish me to ask Minerva if Remus can handle the first few weeks of classes?”

Harry rebelled at being treated as though he were a child, despite all of his concerns of seconds before. “No, it’s all right.”

“Remus certainly has been throwing himself into work of late, I doubt he would mind.”

Harry shook his head again. “I just want to get this prophecy over with . . . and hope there isn’t another one,” he added glumly.

“Prophecies have their own time and place; you cannot force it.”

“Right, Albus,” Harry retorted lightly.

Snape sat back and folded his hands together as though Harry’s jab had sent him into a revere. “I used to wonder occasionally what Albus would think of certain events. I have not felt the need to do so in a while, I’ll admit.”

“That’s probably a good thing. I don’t think he liked being relied on when he was around.”

Snape sat forward and moved as though to continue dealing with the post. “I will meet you here tomorrow at six. Owl me if you cannot make it.”

- 888 -

Harry returned to Shrewsthorpe the next day as instructed. The weather had turned foul and the tarps covering the holes in the roof snapped viciously. Winky offered Harry tea, but he told her he would not be staying long. He took a seat in the drawing room, the only room that was not completely packed up. Snape was late and Harry had to work to keep his imagination from running wild with potential bad situations.

When Snape did arrive he was as distracted as Harry had ever seen him.

"Everything all right?" Harry asked in concern.

"What? Oh, yes, certainly. We are late, let's go." He led the way to the Floo and held the canister out for Harry. But Harry would not accept any.

"What's wrong?" Harry demanded to know.

"Nothing," Snape replied in such an unconvincing manner that Harry wondered that Snape imagined Harry could possibly believe him.

"You're lying," Harry said, wondering at Snape being late without any good guesses as to why.

Snape's glare grew into a more classic version of itself. "We'll discuss it later." He held the Floo powder out even closer to Harry.

"We'll discuss it now," Harry returned calmly. Nothing was going to slide with Harry anymore; too much had happened.

Snape set the canister down on the table. "Are you disobeying me?" he asked, half annoyance, half surprise.

Harry swallowed, "Yes, I guess I am." Silence descended beyond the crackle of the fresh fire. "You're late. You're never late. Something's clearly bothering you." These were all statements, not demands or even questions.

"We'll discuss it later," Snape insisted, again holding out the Floo powder canister.

"Nothing I need know about right now?"

In a very odd and wry tone, Snape said, "Not immediately, no."

They arrived in a modest drawing room that felt drafty even in the warm weather. Shazor gave Harry a close inspection, but Gretta gave him the same hug as always.

"So, the busy young man was able to make it," Shazor said, leading the way to the dining room where Candide was already seated. She appeared flushed and distracted. "Would you like a drink, Harry . . . of course you would," Shazor said, doling out shots of something thick and dark. Candide set hers before her but did not join them in a toast.

The evening dragged on slowly. Harry sat across from Gretta, who happily took care of both ends of a conversation if left to it. The only interesting part of the whole evening was when Severus bothered to mention that he and Candide were engaged. Shazor and Gretta took this with less surprise than Harry had and Candide kept her head down through the ensuing congratulations.

When the question of the date came up, Severus replied, "Soon," with such a annoyed tone that Harry, who had been expecting the same open-ended answer as before, nearly spit out his sherry. He shot Severus a curious glance, but received nothing in return. He did not get a chance to ask later that evening; Severus took Candide back to her flat, leaving Harry to finish his goodbyes with the others.

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