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Chapter 3 -- Nineteen Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What's that thing?" Harry asked.

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes," several people replied in unison.

"Oh good," Ron said.

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

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

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

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

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

"How are you, Remus?" Harry asked.

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

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

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

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

"Thanks. And thanks, Ron."

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

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

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

"I do," Ron argued unconvincingly.

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

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

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

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

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

"Catch anyone?" Harry asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"That was nice of him."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Silencing charms work wonders in such situations."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Do you want me to check?"

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

"What are you making?"

"Something of my own concocting."

"I've never seen it before."

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

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

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

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

"Why not?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harry insisted, "Say something."

"It is all very tenuous."

"What is?"

Snape huffed. "Life."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You going?" Harry pointed asked Snape.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You aren't," Snape insisted.

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

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

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

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

Harry laughed lightly.

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

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

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

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

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

"Do you want me to come along?"

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

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

- 888 -

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

Harry shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes. Want me to do it again?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Well, it worked," Harry said.

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

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

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

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

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

"Oh," Harry said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- 888 -

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

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

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

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

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

Tridant shrugged his broad shoulders. His lip twitched.

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

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

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

A third shrug.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes. Absolutely."

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

- 888 -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

"That is an understatement."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"And Candide believes it went swimmingly."

"Then you are set."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What happened?"

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

"Do you want Severus' help?"

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

"Memory charm?"

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

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

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

Next Week: Chapter Four -- Battle in Darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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