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Chapter 14 -- Chafing

Ron arrived at breakfast time on Saturday and took Hornisham's place as Harry's guard. Harry was quite pleased to see him. "Let's get out, all right?" Harry said to him before managing even "hello".

Ron shrugged and took the seat beside Harry. "Mrs. Snape," he said, greeting Candide.

Candide gestured with a rasher-laden fork. "Didn't actually change my name," she pointed out.

"Ah," Ron said, "Good plan that." He paused to let his mind drift. "How shall I call you? Harry's New Mum?"

Harry coughed on his juice.

"'Mrs. Snape' is fine," Candide stated slowly. "'Candide' is fine."

"'Mrs. Professor'," Ron suggested in a tone of trying out the sound of it.

"You gave the right passcode, didn't you?" Harry asked his friend in dismay.

"You tell me," Ron replied. A full plate of breakfast appeared before him. "All right!" he cheered lightly.

"Didn't you eat yet?"

"I did," Ron said, eagerly picking up his fork while carefully surveying the diverse field before him.

"Guess you are Ron," Harry commented quietly.

Ron, still chewing a sausage, asked Candide, "So, what names are you thinking of?"

Harry pricked his head up. Candide replied, "Apuleius maybe. Argentio is nice too."

"Ah, so you haven't got to the Bs in the book yet," Ron said, nodding knowingly. "I have an aunt named Argentinia," he went on between bites. "But that's because they were running out of girls names on that side. That's how my mum got the name 'Molly'. They say granddad really meant to say 'golly!' but his mouth was full at the time, or so the story goes."

Harry and Candide shared a silent laugh.

"Such big families," Harry said, shaking his head. "I can't imagine."

"Ready for a brother, right?" Candide asked with amused force.

Harry did not want her to worry about him, of all things. "Yeah. I'm looking forward to it. It's just a baby. How hard could that be?"

Candide seemed to freeze, but then she said, "I hope you're right, but I somehow don't think you are."

"Oh," Harry said. "What are babies like?" he asked Ron.

Ron raised and lowered his boney shoulders. "Loud, smelly. They get into things. Sometimes magic comes flying off of them and then their nappies won't stay on . . . you'll find them dangling from the chandelier in there..."

"The baby or the nappies?" Harry asked, not sure he wanted to hear which.

Ron did not reply, just went on with: "The windows will all shatter from this hyper-magic crying . . ." He waved his hand dismissively. "You wouldn't believe what happened when my cousin took her baby daughter to a croquet match once. They never did find all the hoops."

Given Candide's quizzically alarmed expression, Harry thought it best to interrupt. "Well, we should go, maybe."

Harry, as a quick way of coming up with a plan, mentioned that it was certainly looking like a great day to stroll up and down Diagon Alley, and he dragged his friend off to do just that.

Half the wizarding world was out that morning, it seemed, and as well as recognizing many old school chums, they encountered Aaron, window shopping before Madam Malkin's.

"Don't you have field work?" Harry asked.

Aaron gave the hand sign for "taking care of it", which may, as strange as it seemed, mean he was doing his field work right then. Aaron turned and greeted Ron a bit loudly, and chummily suggested they enter the store. The shopkeeper glanced up and gave the fleeting impression that she had expected someone else.

Aaron perused the racks in the manner of a connoisseur who expects to be disappointed with absolutely everything. He made a big scene of looking for robes for a nice dinner out with his mum.

Madam Malkin shuffled over to him, sliding the racks of robes around to better reach him. "Well, what will your father be wearing, dear?" she asked him.

"If he has the misfortune of being there, it would presumably be in the same tailcoat we buried him in three years ago."

Madam Malkin held her hands up then placed one on Aaron's arm. "So, sorry, young man, I should have remembered that. You are certainly in here often enough. Well, how about this one." She held up a green set of robes with maroon lace trim. "I found it in the warehouse. Vintage, from Italy."

Harry thought there was absolutely no chance his dapper friend would even consider those quaint and studiously old-fashioned robes, but Aaron held them up in the light of the window for inspection, and took a long time about it.

Ron nudged Harry, who also thought it may be time to move on. But Harry also suspected something more was going on, so he brushed Ron off. Indeed, not five minutes later--while Aaron stood before the triptych mirror in the back of the store, alternately studying the decorative back hem and checking the sleeve length on a set of robes for which it was frankly surprising that neither he nor they burst spontaneously into flames upon his donning them--the door chime mutely clanged and three skulky figures entered.

There was something odd about the tri-some that was not immediately quantifiable. They resembled two brothers and a sister in their mid-twenties, but Harry did not recognize them from Hogwarts as he would expect to. Aaron went on, deliberating about the robes, sounding spoiled about what he disliked, but Madam Malkin dutifully agreed with everything he said.

One of the wizards circled around, desultorily shopping, and came up short upon encountering Harry beside the mirror. He recovered and moved on with a quick gesture to the other two that would have been easy to miss if one were not looking for it. They gathered in the far corner and the woman shifted robes on a rack while they bent their heads together. Aaron's gaze flickered over to them and then to Harry before he resumed his unsatisfiable shopper routine.

Harry bit his lip. He was in the way, perhaps. Aaron was on duty; Harry was certain now. He was staking out the shop and Harry was disrupting that. But Aaron could have suggested Harry leave before now and had not done so. Harry casually made a comment to Aaron about the green color not being flattering to him because it would imply he was proud of being a Slytherin. Aaron sent a surprised and insulted look his way, but Harry missed it; he was glancing at the group in the corner, determined to memorize their faces, which wasn't easy; they were very ordinary looking beyond their dark, shiny hair. No particular features of their faces stood out to make note of.

The group broke out of their whispered conversation and departed the store with a last challenging glance at Harry. Ron had started to search the business attire rack out of sheer boredom and noticed none of this. Aaron sighed at his image in the mirror and slipped off the robes like one removing a sweaty uniform after a long match.

"Oh, you don't want those?" Ron said brightly. "Can I try them?"

Aaron peered down at the robes, bundled like rubbish in his hands, and then back up at Ron. For a second he seemed to contemplate intervening and refusing, but he handed the robes over and relinquished the spot before the mirrors.

"They do look better on Ron," Harry whispered to Aaron a few minutes later while Ron studied himself in the mirror. Indeed the lace matched his hair and that made a world of difference.

"I have a spare Slytherin pin you can borrow," Aaron suggested when Ron pinched the neck closed with his fingers and lifted his chin with a staid air.

"Was I in the way?" Harry asked Aaron in a whisper.

"No," Aaron said, shaking his head while critically eyeing Ron.

"Was that part of the gang that came in here?" Harry asked.

"Probably," Aaron replied, far more interested in Ron's attire than Harry's conversation.

"Well . . . we should go back to the Ministry then," Harry insisted. "I remember what they look like."

"No, you don't," Aaron calmly countered.

Harry stared at him. "I don't?"

"Shacklebolt said they'd probably be Rho-Potioned and you couldn't know what they really looked like."

"Row-Potioned?" Harry repeated. He'd never heard of that.

"Did you see them with all black hair too?" Aaron asked.

"Yeah."

"Hm. Kingsley said the potion had a regression to the mean effect. So maybe they are from somewhere south."

Harry shook his head, not following at all.

Aaron leaned closer to explain. "The potion makes you appear as an average of everyone you've ever met. So, you can't tell what they look like, but you know they aren't from, say, Sweden."

"Right," Harry said, following that part, at least.

"I better go report in." Aaron said. "Shacklebolt said to come right back if anything happens, and on top of that, I can't stand to watch real Galleons get put down for those robes . . . no matter how good they look on someone. Or maybe because they are starting to look good on someone."

- 888 -


Rodgers teased Harry on Monday during training. "We must not be giving Potter enough field time . . . he's repeatedly went out hunting for his own over the weekend." Harry's fellows grinned, while Harry stared at his fingernails. Rodgers went on, "If you want more assignments, I have one for you. Fudge wants a few Aurors assigned to him half-time. I'm half-tempted to half-send you, if you are so bored."

Harry balked. "Fudge and I don't get along very well."

"Really? I hadn't noticed," Rodgers stated airily. "Fudge wants to form a permanent committee to focus on combatting organized crime."

"Er," Harry asked even though it pained him to support Fudge, "Don't we need that?"

Rodgers raised a pale brown brow and glared at Harry. "We don't have time for committees. Fudge used to do this to us all the time. Six months of pulling us one way and then tugging us to something completely different for the next six months. All the time, meetings and reports. We never accomplished anything and as soon as we turn our backs on all the other problems to jump on one alone, all heck in a handbasket breaks loose and we have to scramble to just get things under control. Minister Bones has been a god-send. If she sticks her nose in, it's just to ask if we need anything; she otherwise leaves us alone to get things done."

Tridant piped up when Rodgers ran out of diatribe. "The Prophet seems to think she's asleep and lacks leadership." It was not clear from his tone if he were baiting their trainer or just wanted to get a response.

Rodgers said, "I prefer to think she just trusts us to do our jobs and knows we can't do them from a meeting room or stuck behind a dictation quill. Let them use their own personnel; we have enough of our own troubles."

During lunch, upon which Harry was forced to use the slightly stinky, poison-revealing drops, Harry fell thoughtful, perhaps due to having to eat slowly while half holding his nose. It was occurring to him that he had not felt Moody following him for quite a while. Harry dumped the remaining half of his sandwich and went to find Mr. Weasley.

Harry found the department head in the file room, leaning over a teetering stack of files on a cabinet, taking notes from the top one while pressing a finger on it to keep it from spilling onto the floor. "Hello Harry, need this drawer?" he asked, when Harry stepped over.

"I just wanted to ask you something."

Mr. Weasley closed the top file to give Harry his full attention and said, "Go on."

"Is Mad-Eye still working for the Department of Mysteries?"

"I think so," Mr. Weasley replied after glancing around the empty room for anyone possibly listening in. "Fudge has been repeatedly requesting manpower from us at the same time as he's been bragging that he has someone mysterious working for him who he claims is better than anyone we have to offer."

"Clearly, he thinks flattery will get him somewhere," Harry commented.

"What? Oh, yes," Mr. Weasley chuckled. "Clearly." He sorted through his files seemingly at random and said, "You should come for dinner this Wednesday, the whole clan will be there."

"I'd like that, thanks," Harry said.

Harry had started to turn back to the heavy door, but stopped when Mr. Weasley asked, "May I inquire what made you ask about Moody?"

"Oh," Harry said, not meaning to be opaque. "I was just thinking that I hadn't noticed him following me lately. Not that I'm complaining."

"If Cornelius is giving him the kind of pointless assignments I know he's expecting of us, I expect Moody is rather busy. More so now because the Department of Mysteries had one of their technicians injured in that fire Thursday night."

"They did?" Harry asked.

"Yes. It was just announced this morning to the Ministry at large. Probably will be in the press this afternoon."

"What started the fire?" Harry asked. "Was it an accident or a fight?"

Mr. Weasley sighed, gave Harry a firm look, and then appeared to give in, "Looks like an accident right now. Felton had taken some work home and it got out of hand. He's expected to recover eventually."

"What was he working on?"

Mr. Weasley smiled faintly as he said, "Too many questions, Harry." He scratched his head, tapped the files before him and admitted, "Department of Mysteries refused to give us a straight answer to that anyhow. I expect Alastor will get to the bottom of it for them, since they haven't told us enough to help, really. Moody is sharp enough to handle it, I expect."

Harry was less certain. "I wonder who was following him," he muttered aloud.

Mr. Weasley returned his full attention to Harry. "Following whom, Moody?"

Harry recovered from having spoken his internal musings. "Yeah. He accused me of doing it."

"He accused you? I'd expect he'd realize you've seen enough of him."

Harry shrugged, which was a kind of lie, since he knew very well why Moody suspected Harry of being skilled enough to slip within Moody's copious warning barriers undetected, should he care to.

"Maybe Alastor really should retire for good," Mr. Weasley said, shaking his head. "So! I can tell Molly to expect you on Wednesday?"

"Yes, sir," Harry said.

Mr. Weasley winked. "Kingsley's been praising your field shadowing. Good to see you're settling down a bit, Harry." He sounded inordinately pleased. "Still more curious than you're really allowed to be at this stage. . ."

Harry rubbed his hands together. "I've been finding it a bit easier to follow the rules lately. For some reason . . ." he added despite knowing that the rules felt better now after seeing how miserable the world would be without them.

"Probably just growing up, Harry," Mr. Weasley said patronizingly, in a way that set Harry off slightly.

"Maybe," Harry said, not conceding at all to his own mind.

During the afternoon, Rodgers had to leave them for several hours to drill on their own. When this happened again the next day, Harry and Aaron just happened to slip down to the tearoom for an unscheduled break and just happened to loiter outside the main offices, listening for any clue as to what was happening.

Harry wished for a set of Extendable Ears as he sipped a cup of tea he did not really want, just for an excuse. His fallback plan was to weasel some information out of Tonks if she turned out to be his guard that night. There in the corridor with the steaming, thin tea under his nose, Harry felt a wave of general frustration that they were not allowed to help more.

Aaron cocking his ear toward the doorway pulled Harry back to their spying. Rogan was saying: "Ragnok insists that the wizards in question are just trying to cheat them. They are threatening to close the vaults except during an hour a day and force everyone through some rather unsavory screening."

Tonks voice then: "Last time they did that Diagon Alley had to resort to barter and a few merchants started accepting pounds. It was chaos. I couldn't pay my rent and had to befuddle my landlord to avoid being thrown out of my place."

Harry and Aaron stared at each other while they listened to more descriptions of dismayed Goblins. Harry wondered again what Moody was doing for Fudge. He thought about who else he might ask. It occurred to him with a chill of realization that he could slip into the Department of Mysteries to see for himself what was happening there. He stopped listening to the Auror conversation and fixated on what he knew first-hand of the Department of Mysteries. The memories were fraught with stress and bad outcomes but within that thorny thicket, the visions of it were as clear as the paneled wall he stood before now.

"What do you think?" Aaron asked, jarring Harry away from hatching plans.

"I have to think about it more," Harry said, answering only to his own thoughts.

"Hm, sounds to me like the shakedown is taking in Gringotts," Aaron said with confidence.

"What?" Harry said, wishing he had paid more attention.

"Well, you know. Extortion and fraud, that's usually where this type make their money."

"Er, yeah," Harry agreed. His mind jumped to another mystery topic that he wished he could resolve. It occurred to him that Aaron would be an optimum guard to take on a mission to check in on Belinda. Harry had found it inconvenient to try and convince Tonks to make a social call to the Minister's office, but Aaron would not mind, nor would he ask too many questions. "Hey, if you think the other three wouldn't miss us, let's go up and see someone I want to talk to."

Aaron rubbed his elbow. "I could stand to skive off for a while longer. These power-building drills are really taking a toll on my quest for a bruise-free lifestyle."

As they headed for the stairs, Harry said with a laugh, "A bruise-free what?"

"Bruises aren't as sexy as they used to be. Healers can't do a thing for them, so I'd prefer to abstain, thank you."

Up in the Minister's office, Aaron showed just how valuable he could be . . . he sauntered over to the other assistant, hunched over a pile of reports taking notes, and began to chat her up. Harry did not think they knew each other, but within seconds Aaron had her smiling and completely distracted from everything else.

"Hello, Harry," Belinda said, looking up from a typewriter she had opened up before her, the letter-tipped metal arms splayed at random up and backwards.

"Hello," Harry returned. "Er, what are you doing?"

"Muggle correspondence." She shook her head and moved in with a tiny pick to clean out the circular letter parts. "We used to have an old witch down in records that could charm a quill to mimic a typewriter, but she retired and now we have to keep this thing running for Muggle organization-bound letters."

Harry blinked at that and considered that a typewritten letter probably looked as out of date as a quilled one these days. He watched her work for a minute, cleaning the black gunk out of the silver letter shapes and folding each one back down, repeatedly having to unfold some because they refused to go back in if pushed in the wrong order. Harry was thinking about criminal gangs and Belinda confessing that she did not want to tell anyone at the Ministry what was troubling her because she would lose her job. Belinda sighed and rubbed her blackened fingers on a white rag.

"Muggle machines aside, how are you doing?" Harry asked.

Belinda shrugged. She cleaned her hands more thoroughly with a spell before reaching under the wheeled typewriter table for a sheet of crisp real paper. The paper was fed into the rollers of the machine and adjusted with much clacking and rolling back and forth.

"Sorry, I don't mean to ignore you, but I'm behind on getting these done." She stopped and glanced at the other office assistant. Harry glanced that way too and found the woman completely involved in her conversation with Aaron.

In a low voice, Belinda said, "I've wanted to have coffee with you, but I notice that you are always under guard now. Makes it kind of hard to talk to you." She said this in a way that maybe implied Harry was at fault for the situation.

Harry imagined that she had vacillated on whether to tell him what was wrong and he wished he had not missed finding out. "I know."

The door to the Minister's office opened and Harry stood straight, not prepared to deal with Bones right then, but it was just one of the other assistants, a skinny man with rimless glasses and a shiny bald top to his head. He closed the door behind him and moved to the shelves without once glancing at the strangers in the room.

Quiet still, Harry said, "You know, if you need anything, just owl. I'll shake my guard if I have to."

"You shouldn't do that," she said, firmly correcting him. She bit her lip. "Don't shake your guard even if I ever do owl you saying you should."

The male assistant took something back into the inner office and Harry had a glimpse of Bones at her desk, reading something by holding it far from her eyes.

Harry was still trying to grasp her last statement when she said, "There's a meeting soon . . . so, you should probably go."

Harry tried to Legilimize her in the last glance before she bent back to typing by poking at one key at a time, but did not catch anything beyond an image of two Goblins carrying gold-plated briefcases.

Aaron did not need to be prompted. He caught sight of Harry stepping back from the desk and immediately closed the conversation he was having. The woman said, "Hey, we should have drinks sometime."

Aaron turned on a deadly smile and replied, "That would be lovely," without promising anything firm.

In the corridor, Harry said out of the corner of his mouth, "I'd hate to be your girlfriend."

"I'd hate for you to be my girlfriend too," Aaron agreed, deadly serious, but he laughed hardily after.

On the stairs, Aaron said wistfully, "Why is it the one you've got never seems as nice as the ones you don't?"

Harry needed the whole trip down to come up with a response. With his hand on the door latch to their floor he said, "That attitude sounds guaranteed to lead to unhappiness."

"If I had your fame, I could have anyone," Aaron said dreamily.

Harry still held the door closed. "You have money; isn't that enough?"

"It does help," Aaron agreed. "My mum still doles it out. Insists I'm not ready to have it all in a lump sum yet. I think she just wants to drag me home for luncheons at will. Potential girlfriends do not like to learn that this is the case."

Harry opened the door. "If they can't handle that, you're better off without them."

That evening, Harry unusually chaffed under having Tonks as a guard. He wanted to try slipping into the Department of Mysteries and could not work out a scheme to get enough time alone to do it. Candide came home for dinner, hair mussed, eyes sore looking. When the settings arrived with a sparkle, she carefully straightened the silverware and waited for the food while tapping her finger on the wood.

Concerned, Harry asked, "Are you going to make it through November?"

Candide brightened. "Oh yes. This has been an easy year so far."

"Really?" Harry asked.

When the plates of food arrived, Candide's was not only larger but piled with fruit on one half. Candide stared at it before popping a grape into her mouth. "Winky's started doing this to me," she commented, not sounding annoyed, but not sounding pleased either

"Maybe Severus should be here looking after you," Harry said.

"No," Candide denied, holding up a peach for examination. "I'm fine. Winky has her own ideas, is all."

"Hm," Harry muttered, unconvinced.

Candide nibbled a second grape thoughtfully and said, "He'd come home if you needed him."

"I don't. I just think you do," Harry returned.

"I don't, but if you are insisting, it makes me think you think you need him."

"What?" Harry asked with a sharp head shake.

Tonks chimed in, "This is the strangest argument I've ever witnessed."

"It's not an argument," Harry snapped lightly, then sighed sheepishly.

That night as Hornisham took over because Tonks was on duty, Harry sat partly reading and mostly thinking about how he might get away long enough to do some investigating. This restriction on him was making him ill tempered, which made it difficult to concentrate. There was nothing for it; he had to convince Mr. Weasley to cancel his guard. Of course he could hardly tell him why he needed the guard removed. And he doubted he could convince Mr. Weasley to agree. But he had to try.

Harry frowned into a small book on the history of weather hexes, specifically on a chapter covering combined spells to create storm clouds. Hornisham was knitting again, but this time the hooks and perls built up something wide and square that was unlikely to be a scarf given the heavy grinding sound of it rubbing on the hearthstone. The creak and grind of metal needle on metal cord had grown into a background noise for Harry's home life, a background noise for his lack of freedom.

Harry stared at the inexpertly typeset and crookedly printed page before him. The book would be even thinner if the margins were not so wide. He considered that he could trick Hornisham easily enough with a Doppelgänger or a Memory Charm, but that felt like too cruel a trick.

That night Harry slept poorly. He dreamed that Rodgers was unrelenting in striking him with spells. Harry refused to beg for him to stop, even when he discovered his hand empty of wand and could not find it on the floor near his knees. Battered with spells intended to improve him, Harry crouched with his hands over his head in a futile effort to protect himself.

Harry squinted around his dimly lit bedroom after Hornisham prodded him awake with a knitting needle. His trunks, against the wall where they belonged, sat in blurry stillness, as did his wardrobe. All was normal.

"Potter, Potter," Hornisham repeated in a little voice when Harry did not respond.

Harry rolled away from her to collect himself. Across the room, Kali crawled violently inside her cage for a burst, then quieted.

"Ack," Hornisham muttered and returned to her knitting.

- 888 -


Harry used dinner at the Burrow to begin the long impossible work of convincing Mr. Weasley to remove his guard. Several other early-arriving Weasleys were more than happy to throw their support behind Harry. Both Weasley parents insisted that Harry's arguing that nothing had happened to him was all the more reason to keep him under guard, not remove it. Ron refused to take sides, as did Bill. Harry let the topic drop when Percy arrived, new girlfriend in tow.

The Weasley family all stopped what they were doing, heads cranked around, bodies frozen in place, when the pair entered from the Floo. Percy led the woman in by the hand, except her hand remained a fist. Her brow and lip edge glittered with silver rings and her shoulder-length hair was of a black hue that reflected absolutely no light, so that it appeared a blurry hole following behind her face. Her clothing, with long silver chains adorning it at random, reflected slightly more light than her hair.

Percy sulkily glanced at his family members in turn and stopped before Mrs. Weasley. "Mum, this is Vespera. Vespera Eyre."

"How do you do, dear?" Mrs. Weasley managed faintly.

Vespera may have smiled, may have sneered. The others were recovering enough to send funny-faced glances at each other.

Harry did not intentionally sit beside Vespera during dinner, but at the last moment he rescued Ginny from having to do so. Percy's date was wearing something mildly cursed and it seemed to vibrate in concert with the bizarre scent of her perfume, so Harry ate little and began to contemplate going home early. Dinner was a mute affair punctuated by one or the other of the parents attempting to learn anything from Percy's date. She was entirely monosyllabic, so this was a slow, tortuous process for all present. Percy exuded an air of smugness and attempted to dote on his date whenever possible, to no reaction from her.

When Harry made to leave, to loudly expressed disappointment, Mr. Weasley started to say, "About that issue we were discussing-"

Harry cut him off. "I'll see you tomorrow about it, sir." He thought he had dodged Mr. Weasley's revelation, but Percy narrowed his eyes at his father at the far other end of the table. Harry frowned, but then considered that perhaps this was perfect. If Percy was after Harry, then him believing Harry may lose his guard could draw him out where Harry could catch him. "I'll come to your office in the morning, if that's all right, sir."

Mr. Weasley gestured that Harry could do as he pleased. Ron and Ginny and then the twins even, all jumped up to escort Harry home. Ginny was beside Harry, looking the most in need of a breather, so he chose her.

Back in Shrewsthorpe, Harry said, "I don't like the way Percy Legilimizes your dad."

Ginny replied simply, "I don't like Percy."

The house was quiet. Harry stepped into the hall and glanced around, ran the barrier detection spells, and then turned to Ginny. "I need a guard that will give me some leeway. I have some things I need to do."

"Won't Tonks give you some room?" Ginny asked, mystified.

Harry huffed. "Yeah. Good question." It pained him to wonder about it. "It involves the Ministry, so I think not."

"Harry," Ginny began but then hesitated for quite a while. "Harry, if you don't trust Tonks, you know, to tell her pretty much anything, I don't think it's going to work out, long-term."

Harry stared at her pale, freckled face in the candlelight. He did not want to say aloud that she was probably right, but part of him had already turned traitor and had started pounding on him with that notion. He should just trust Tonks and if she did not trust him in return, well, then it was not meant to be. Standing there in the dining room, with the light reflecting brightest on the glass of the framed photographs on the sideboard, it seemed far too obvious that this issue was the problem between them.

"Harry?" Ginny finally prodded.

"Yeah," Harry breathed. Not admitting to anything, just acknowledging that she was still there.

Ginny flipped her hair around, perhaps out of impatience. "Is your next guard here?"

Harry rose out of his lowly spiraling thoughts. "No."

Ginny pulled out a chair and took a seat. "I'll wait." She drummed her fingers. "If I wish for a Butterbeer, will--" A Butterbeer bottle sparkled into place before her. "That's lovely," she said happily.

Harry sat across from her. He should fetch his readings, but did not move to do so. "I'm sick to death of being guarded. I can't even remember what it was like to be alone."

"That doesn't sound that bad."

Harry gazed around the room. "I wonder where Hornisham is, or Tonks, or whomever it is supposed to be."

"You don't know?"

"No." Harry too drummed his fingers. "I could sneak away right now," he said, sitting up.

Ginny's mouth made a popping sound on the bottle top when she tugged it away suddenly. "No you aren't."

"What?"

"You're staying here. We don't know what happened to your guard and I'm not going to get reamed for losing track of you. Sit."

Harry settled back into the chair, surprised by her.

"Where is it you want to go anyhow?" she asked.

"I'm not telling you."

"Fine."

Harry crossed his arms and rotated a quarter turn away from her. A second butterbeer appeared to replace Ginny's just emptied first one. Harry pulled his wand, summoned his books and slouched far back to read.

"Maybe you should go tell your dad that my guard is late," Harry said after a while.

Ginny considered this suggestion. "Why don't we just send an owl through the Floo?"

"No owls around at the moment," Harry stated a bit stiffly.

"Boy, you are just a cheery bundle of gnome dancing this evening, aren't you? I didn't notice that earlier while you were sitting in the shadow of She-Who-Must-Not-Speak-In-Complete-Sentences." When Harry expressed some chagrin at his behavior, Ginny said, "We can both go back and tell him." She stood. "Come on."

"You know, I may just be too early returning," Harry said, reluctant to further discuss the issue of his guards in front of Percy, who may still be there.

Ginny settled back and took up her full Butterbeer. "I can wait."

Harry yearned to point out that he could defeat Voldemort, single-handed, should he choose to return that evening, so he certainly did not need a guard, but he kept silent.

Hornisham arrived shortly after Candide did. She and Ginny were involved immediately in a detailed discussion of Candide's pregnancy so far. Harry listened in, wondering at this instant connection between the two of them that seemed to spawn from nothing more than that they were both female. Hornisham was a welcome distraction. She gave the correct code word and Ginny departed with a warmer goodbye to Candide than to Harry.

That night, Harry dreamt he was attending Percy and Vespera's wedding. The tent and the guests were similar to Snape's wedding and everyone waited anxiously for the bride. She finally arrived, in the form of a black rat, who scampered down the aisle before transforming into a women in a broad-skirted black dress heaped with layers of torn black lace. Everyone quieted for the ceremony and Harry longed to leap from his flimsy folding chair to shout that something was wrong, that it all had to stop. But he stayed put, stressed dearly by feeling it best he do so.

When Harry turned to his companion to whisper his concerns, he found Snape glaring flinty-eyed at him, in a manner that suggested they shared no history. Harry rose from his chair, collapsing it loudly. The surrounding guests turned in their seats to stare. At the front, the ceremony halted and Percy lifted his nose in the air and turned away.

Harry backed off, finding concerned faces where he least expected it: like upon the Malfoy family. Harry encountered the plastic window on the tent wall with his hand. The breeze snapped the side of the tent against his back, nearly knocking him forward into the nearest chairs.

He was in the wrong place, he realized with a prickly jolt. Heart racing, Harry felt along the wall of the tent until he found an opening and slipped through out to the damp darkness. Overhead, leaves clattered ominously, casting water droplets at him. Low clouds blocked the stars. He had to get home, even if he could not remember how he had arrived in this place.

Harry's room snapped into view when a knitting needle prodded him on the leg. Kali made a fuss in her cage and Hornisham shuffled over there and opened it. Harry sat up, groggily worried about his pet's reaction to a stranger, but Hornisham had no difficulty. She gripped the often vicious chimrian confidently in her broad palm, head pressed out between her index and middle finger, wings bundled, tiny legs flailing helplessly.

Harry relaxed and accepted his pet, who immediately crept under the coverlet and disappeared. He rubbed his tender and tired eyes and fell sideways on his pillow, determined to ignore his embarrassment. His guard resumed her usual spot by the hearth, but the clicks of her knitting needles did not return before Harry fell back into swirling sleep.

When Harry awoke the next morning, he found his room empty. He put on his dressing gown and headed downstairs where he found Candide and his guard standing in a silent tableau, clearly interrupted from speaking. With a frown he turned away to get ready for the day.

Harry's determination to ignore his embarrassment mutated into raw determination to get his way as he landed in the Ministry Atrium. He left his guard with a polite "thank you" and a quick bow, and marched upstairs to find Mr. Weasley. This was easy; the department head was in the corridor, talking to Percy and Fudge.

"You're here bright and early, Harry," Mr. Weasley said approvingly.

Harry Occluded his mind before studying anyone closely. "Lots to learn," Harry said sweetly. "Thought I'd get to it."

Mr. Weasley missed the tone and gestured at the training room opposite. "Well, don't let us get in your way."

Harry plopped down at the desk beside Vineet, who was reading to himself alone in the room.

"You're early too," Harry said to start a conversation, which failed. Harry sat straighter. "Hey, I want to check on a friend. Can you come along as a guard?" Harry asked this partly to avoid trouble, but also because he wanted the company. Instinctively, Harry thought Elizabeth would hold together better in Vineet's presence. She had still been quite upset the night of the fight when Harry had gone back to check that her friend was indeed allowing her to stay.

Elizabeth's roommate was just preparing to depart for work when Harry knocked on the door. The door opened before he could even lower his hand to his side. Diane smiled upon recognizing him and moved her substantial, skirted self out of the way for the two of them to enter. She scooped up her slim attaché from a chair and said, "I'll be back sixish, Lizzie."

Elizabeth stood from the breakfast-strewn table where she was reading official-looking papers. Harry made sure she remembered his fellow apprentice and asked how she was.

"Well enough," Elizabeth said, accentuating her strained words with a toss of her unstyled hair. "I have to figure out how to pay for term, which starts next week. I'm a little late applying for a loan for Michelmas."

"You're going to manage, right?" Harry asked.

Elizabeth threw her arms to the sides. "It's a problem I wanted to have--figuring out how to do this myself. It's part of getting away from dad." Her head bowed, highlighting her more than usually unkempt state.

"Do you want to come to dinner at my house?" Harry asked. "You're welcome to, you know."

She smiled wryly. "I appreciate that, Harry. It's maybe a tad too close to home. Maybe some other time. Don't worry about me."

"You're certain?" Harry asked, not liking the deep shade under her eyes that implied she had not slept well.

Vineet, cutting a serious figure in his dark robes with his arms crossed, stated, "Your friend appears to keep food well at hand."

Elizabeth smiled for real. "She does that. There's a small shop's worth of crisps and sweets stuffed in the cabinets and in the coat cupboard even."

It made Harry feel better to know she at least could not go hungry, but he wished he could help her more. She glanced at her watch and interrupted his wishing with: "Don't you have training?"

Harry reluctantly departed, remembering too well a long blur of feeling badly treated by his relatives. He did not manage to corner Mr. Weasley that day, despite numerous attempts. At least that night Tonks came home as a guard, so he was happy enough to put off his determination for another day.

While Harry caught up on assigned readings, Tonks tried out various nail colors and lengths, as well as finger lengths, between perusing the archive of newspapers that Candide allowed to pile up during Snape's absence. Harry thought that they should talk, but his uncertainty about what he should say, along with nervousness about how strained the conversation may turn, made his readings far more interesting than normal. His re-reading of a chapter on the psychology of obsessive magical animal collecting was interrupted by a three-foot long index finger tweaking him on the nose from across the table.

"Am I too boring?" Harry asked.

"Well, now that you ask . . ." Tonks grinned. "Actually wondering when Winky would bring dinner."

Harry glanced at the clock, surprised to find it so late. "If she's waiting on it, she thinks Candide will be back in time." He closed his books and sat back, thinking he might ask for a snack if it went much longer. The section of paper facing him had a photograph of Diagon Alley and a special sale to celebrate the five-hundred year anniversary of Eeylops Emporium.

Little has changed at Eeylops in the last five centuries, the article went. Witches and Wizards has been outfitting their owls, large and small, domestic and exotic, with the best Britain has to offer in feathered pet paraphernalia.

The article sounded far removed from the dark shadow of extortion and organized crime. Harry did not want to see his beloved Diagon Alley damaged in any way. He asked, "That gang is starting to operate on Diagon, aren't they?"

With a crinkling of paper, Tonks turned the news around to glance at what Harry was referring to. "Durumulna? We think they are trying," Tonks said, flipping the paper back.

"Durumulna?"

Tonks shifted again behind the paper so that just her spiked hair appeared over the top. "Yeah, that's what they're calling themselves."

"So, someone's talked to them," Harry said.

"Someone's talked to someone who's talked to them," Tonks replied.

Tonks stayed for the night and when Harry woke from a dream of crawling over the musty Hogwarts dungeon floor, trying to escape something dreadful, he could never have imagined being so simultaneously glad she was there while also wishing to be alone.

Breathing heavily, Harry clutched his middle and sat hunched over his legs. The cool air from the covers falling away helped wake him up to the reality of his room.

"Harry," Tonks said, arm slipping around him. "Are you having dreams like this all the time?"

"Not always like this. They've all been different."

"Well, but, you've been having a lot of nightmares, haven't you? What's going on?"

Harry did not know what was going on. He refused to consider it too closely, especially right now when he should be asleep. Instead he focussed on her hand stroking his back.

"Harry?" she prompted after a while.

"Hm?" he grunted, not wanting to talk.

"What's brought on these nightmares?"

Harry shook his head and Tonks let it drop.

"All right. Can't force you to talk." She flopped back down on the bed.

Harry remained sitting up, thinking. He wished that he did not need to sleep. And despite wanting not to again that night, could not resist it. He fell asleep over his knees twice before relenting and taking up his pillow again properly.

Harry was facing down Snape, a chiseled, scarred and ruthless looking apparition in coal black, high-collared robes. Harry backed up. The cryptic scent of the dungeon was overlaid by the scent of dried blood and raw fear. Harry did not know what he was doing there; he only knew that he was already tired of running away and of fighting.

Harry's back met the shelves of colorful potion bottles and bloated creatures floating contorted in green-hued cloudy liquid. In contrast to Harry, who had no idea what he should do, Snape had a confident determination to his predatory approach. Harry's instincts flailed at the situation; if he could get away, why was he still here?

A long finger, nail stained and chipped, reached out brushed Harry's cheek. Harry forced himself through the floor . . . and awoke in the dust of the Dark Plane. His startled fear attracted a crowd of creatures.

Harry raised himself to all fours and slipped back into his bedroom.

"Harry!" Tonks shouted.

"Right here," Harry said from beside the bed.

"Oh, Merlin! What . . ." Her head came over the edge, highlighted by the bedside lamp. "You must have fallen out of bed and rolled under it. I couldn't find you."

Harry stood and sat on the edge of the bed with his hands on his head. He needed a minute to feel safe again.

"Harry, what are you dreaming about?" Tonks asked.

"It's too hard to explain," Harry returned. A knock on the door saved him from trying to.

"Everything all right?" Candide's uncertain voice came into the room.

Harry insisted it was. Candide hesitated in the doorway adjusting her dressing gown. "Well, it is almost six," she said. "I'm going to ask Winky for breakfast if you want to join me. Maybe if I get an early start, I can get home early."

Downstairs, at a bleary-eyed breakfast, Candide had turned business-like. She said to Harry, "I'm owling Severus today, to tell him you're having nightmares. What are you having nightmares about?"

"He won't say," Tonks filled in while Harry pondered an answer.

Defensive and annoyed now, Harry said, "They're just bad dreams. There's nothing to say."

After Candide departed, Harry said to Tonks, "I need some time to myself for once. Can I meet back up with you at your place in an hour or so?"

Tonks made a face but said, "Yeah. I could stand to clean my flat anyway."

Harry dressed quickly and while still standing in front of his wardrobe, he focussed on a good mental image of the Department of Mysteries. This time the Dark Plane sat in silence. No creatures approached this time because he had no emotion beyond determination.

The Department of Mysteries slid quietly into view. Harry looked around what his adult eyes identified as a workroom. Shelves and work areas alternated along one wall. Harry had a sense of being followed as he took a few steps. He spun, wand ready in the low light, to discover the tank full of tentacled brains. A tentacle rose, dripping, out of the glassy surface. Harry stepped back instinctively and had to turn fast again when he encountered a wheeled chair that creaked when he touched it.

With a huff at himself, Harry lowered his wand. Clearly, he was too jumpy. His personal history with this place aside, it was just another Ministry department. With calmer purpose, Harry walked around and studied the room, stopping when he spotted something familiar among the densely-packed storage shelves. Just sticking out of its felt casing was the half silver cane Harry had picked up at Merton's house. The familiarity of it among the mysterious and sometimes cursed clutter made him smile faintly.

On the far side of the room, Harry turned his head quickly, thinking he heard voices, even early on a Saturday. Cocking his head this way and that, he followed the sound beyond the higher shelves to a rear corridor. Harry hovered in the doorway to the work room and listened. Footsteps approached, making Harry duck fully back inside. Teacups rattled.

"Thank you," Cornelius Fudge's voice said. Then after a pause where footsteps retreated: "As I was saying, and I feel like I have to repeat myself too much of late because no one is listening, the enemy is among us and no one cares one whit about that.

Someone grunted. "I've been keeping an eye on things," Moody's voice said. "But I agree with you in general. There are wizards worth monitoring."

Harry's jaw clenched. At the sound of shuffling footsteps he ducked farther out of the doorway, prepared to slip away completely if need be.

Moody growled, "That room's setting my eye all atwitter, as usual. Perhaps we can meet over in my office?"

"No one can get in or out of this place," Fudge insisted.

"You have a lot of trust in the people who work for you," Moody commented lowly, criticizing.

Fudge retorted, "I am an excellent judge of character, Alastor. I don't keep people around me who are not absolutely loyal to me."

"No wonder he doesn't like me," Harry muttered under his breath.

"There are problems inside the Ministry," Moody said. "I have my suspicions about that fire that injured Felton, but I can't put my hands on sufficient evidence. I need a little more time. He is going to make a mistake one of these days that I can't overlook for the sake of his family history, and when he does I'll be right there to haul him into prison."

"If you are on about Potter, I have more pressing things to worry about. You said yourself, you talked him in to behaving himself."

Harry scrunched his face up to hear better.

" . . . I don't have time for these new investigations. Get someone else," Moody said.

"I've asked for more help. But for now you'll have to manage. I offered to assign you an assistant and not only did you flatly refuse you were inexcusably insulting about it." Objects were slid around inside the office. "This is what we're up against. A completely devilish infiltration. Look at this history text Hogwarts is using," Fudge said. "Published in Slovakia. What are we going to do next? Take Potions advice from the Spanish?"

Another grunt from Moody. "I think you and I have a different idea about what the enemy might be doing," he said tiredly.

"But it is all the same," Fudge said. The sound of chairs and books shifting around echoed in the still corridor. "All this foreign influence. Next thing you know magic carpets will be legal again. Then after that foreigners will be moving into England ON them. And try to tell that to the Wizengamot, not to mention Amelia. They just refuse to see it, or Merlin forbid, welcome it. Thank Merlin you are here to help, Alastor, that you understand."

"I'll be keeping an eye on the things that really matter; let's just leave it at that."

Harry set his teeth again and slipped out of the room and back to his own bedroom so that he could Apparate from there, without suspicion, directly to Tonk's flat.

Tonks was drinking tea at the small table, hair wet and scented from a shower. She looked up at him. "How are you doing, Harry?" she asked as if they had not just been together most of the night.

Harry shrugged but since she sounded worried, he sat down beside her and said, "Everything's fine aside from a few bad dreams."

"If you want a distraction, you can shadow me on duty today."

Harry would not be bothered by that at all. "I'd like that."

Tonks sipped her tea. "You may be useful today. I have stake-out and it is usually boring as heck."

- 888 -


Hogwarts lay in a cloud-bank that roiled by between the hills, filling the gaps and pooling in the valleys. A persistent drizzle stained the walls and towers a gloomy slate grey. Students gathered on the soaked pitch for Ravenclaw Quidditch team selection trials. The stands surrounding the pitch faded in and out of view as they cut into the clouds. A few students hunkered in the stands to cheer on their friends, shaded under waterproof cloaks.

At the sound of claws on the tall, mullioned window, Snape raised his head and waved the lamps in the room up. The noise turned out to be his owl, Franklin. Snape removed the small, un-addressed missive from the owl's leg. It contained just three short lines.

Harry is having nightmares.

He will not discuss them with me.

He knows I am sending you this owl.


Snape gave no indication of surprise as he folded the letter into his pocket, only resignation.

- 888 -


McGonagall's meeting with Hermione had turned into a social call of sorts, the way most of them seemed to. McGonagall was just thinking that they would be more likely to stick to the agenda if she had Professor Snape present at these meetings when Snape himself appeared at the door. He stepped into the office, neck angled forward, hands loosely clasped before him in the shadows of his wide sleeves.

"I need to be absent this evening, possibly until tomorrow."

Treating the announcement as routine, McGonagall said, "Of course, Severus."

Hermione treated it otherwise. "What's the matter with Harry?" she sat straight to ask.

Snape ignored the outburst beyond a small flick of his eyelids. "I have already informed Remus."

McGonagall nodded. Hermione rose to her feet. "Is Harry all right?" she demanded.

Snape glared at her rather than reply, not in the mood to cater to her nosy penchant. "What makes you think this has anything to do with Harry?" he asked with a touch of sarcasm.

"Oh," Hermione uttered and backed up. "Oh, well, I hope Candide is well, then." She twisted her face and said, "But it's Harry, isn't it?"

Snape rolled his eyes. "You may owl him and ask him about his nightmares yourself, Ms. Granger," he said impatiently.

Hermione rolled her eyes as well. "Nightmares?" She dropped back into her chair. "Harry has always had nightmares," she said dismissively. "But I'll owl him." She made just such a note on the top of the parchment before her, then raised her head as though a meeting would continue as before. With a glance at the two of them standing silent, she collected her papers together and departed with one glance back and her papers barely gathered together in her arms.

"Everything all right, Severus?" McGonagall asked, dropping the professional tone.

For a moment he teetered on the verge of simply departing with a grumble. Instead, he found the need to talk. "This is extraordinarily difficult, this finding the right balance between giving someone space to make mistakes and guiding them too closely."

"You are usually quite good at it. I would not want that role as Head of Slytherin House. It was hard enough with Gryffindor."

"This is different," he said. He tossed his head and paced once. "Or perhaps I am different. I do not know."

"I suspect the latter," she said soberly, but then gave a small smile.

Snape shook his stringy hair forward. "I fear if I try to rein him in, I will lose all influence over him, and I cannot risk that."

"I think you underestimate his feelings for you, Severus. Your low regard for the softer emotions makes you underestimate your position."

Snape considered that. He made a laughing scoff. "This is hardest thing I have ever done, this letting him make his own way with his growing powers when the stakes are so high. My influence is already slipping precariously."

McGonagall steepled her fingers, pressed them to her lips and them propped them before her on the broad desk. "Severus, if I may be so bold . . . I believe you are too accustomed to managing from a servile position. Harry is not Voldemort. Your roles are the reverse of how you are wont to view them."

"Ah, Minerva, you have come so far," the portrait of Dumbledore said proudly.

"You stay out of this," Snape said.

The portrait chuckled. Snape sighed. "I do not know when I will return," he admitted to the current headmistress.

McGonagall shifted things around on her desk, implying she wished to move onto other things. "Your presence here is appreciated, Severus, but not required." She stopped to stare him down fully. "Take as long as you need."

- 888 -


As Tonks had warned, the day was rather boring. She and Harry sat in the Leaky Cauldron for half the day, in a position where Tonks could watch the door, and patrolled various wizard business areas around the country for the rest of the day. By evening, Harry's feet hurt, but he hoped the walking and brisk air would help him sleep soundly.

Tonks followed Harry home to wait for his next assigned guard. They had not even settled at the table before Snape swept into the dining room from elsewhere in the house.

"I will take care of the guard duties for the night, Ms. Tonks," he said dismissively with a tiny hand gesture towards the hearth.

Tonks put her hands on her hips. "Do you have the next codeword?"

"No," Snape returned.

"Call Winky in here, so she can vouch for you, then I'll get out of your way."

When that was settled and Tonks had left, Snape re-emerged from the shadows beside the hearth and half-circled Harry. "What is in your dreams?" he asked while staring at a spot on the far wall rather than at Harry. He had a whiff of Hogwarts floating around him, which normally Harry would have found reassuring, but given his dreams, he did not.

"They are just some odd nightmares," Harry said, not wanting to discuss it. "They don't mean anything."

Snape gave his fingertips some attention before saying. "You have studies, do you not?"

"Yes."

"Why don't you go do them." It was not a question; it was an order.

Harry slipped by him into the main hall. With his hand on the bannister, he turned, feeling vaguely resentful. "You know, you should be keeping a better eye on Candide," he criticized. "She's working far too hard."

Snape snapped his finger in the direction of the balcony. "Your studies," he repeated, trailing out the "s" at the end.

Harry ducked his head and went upstairs to fetch his books. But when he arrived there he sat on the edge of his bed and sorted them instead, reviewing things he already knew. Flipping through one of the regulations pamphlets made him appreciate how much better he remembered things now than he used to. He was probably as sharp as Hermione was when he first met her and felt such awe in her ability to pack information into her brain.

Harry tried to come up with the will to start the next chapter in a book on dark wizard psychology, normally a welcome topic, but this author rendered it down into long latin words and boring tables of numbers. A soft knuckle-rap sounded on the doorframe.

"I'm studying," Harry insisted.

"I can see that," Snape said gently. "Is there anything you wish to talk about?"

Harry stared at the column of numbers before him showing the percent of magical British folk involved in various kinds of dark wizardry and the frequency with which they engaged in it. Most only tried it once, or so it appeared. He thought about Belinda, hoping whatever she had been involved in, she was out of now. He thought about Elizabeth and wished his vault still seemed limitless so he could help her more. He thought about Tonks, who was more than willing to give him a little space . . . he just needed to ask for it.

Harry shook his head.

A voice came from farther down the balcony. "Severus, if I'd known you were home, I'd have left earlier. The client insisted on ordering dinner in for us all." She stepped into view and gave Snape a hug.

Harry turned the page where the next chapter, Dark Magic Recidivism, began.

"Long day. I'm turning in," Candide said through a yawn and made her good nights.

When they were alone, Harry asked, "Do you have any potion I could use? The ingredients have thinned out here I noticed the other night."

"If your dreams are so minor, then you do not require any potion," Snape stated slowly. He sounded calculating.

Harry stared at him now, rather than dividing his attention with his book. He tried to gauge him and failed at it. His dreams and his vaguely tired mind were in the way of deciding how to take that last statement, so he gave up on doing so. "I'm studying," he insisted, and bent back to his book until the doorway emptied of its visitor.




Author Notes:

I am, of course, continuing to write. Tomorrow I'm leaving for the south of India for a month. I'm not sure what kind of impact that is going to have on my output. Could go either way... I'll keep updating the progress bars on my homepage, accessible from the author info link on this site. Next chapter the fun stuff begins again!

Next: Chapter 15

Snape looked normal enough. Harry recognized the robes he was wearing with their minimalist decorative stitching on the sleeve and down the back. Snape folded the letter and took the seat across from Harry, the one Candide had just vacated. Harry felt cold and empty and unable to cope with the notion that was taking hold of him.

He stared at Snape while his guardian tucked the letter away in his pocket and, finally noting Harry's attention, stared back. Harry consciously breathed in, glanced around the room, then back at Snape, who now had the slightest rise to one brow.

"What if I'm not in the right place?" Harry asked because it was ready to burst out of him, not because it was the wisest thing to say at that moment.

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