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Chapter 15 — What May Dreams

"You weren't a little brusque with Harry, were you?" Candide asked when Snape arrived in the room and had closed the door.

"If he indicates he wants help, I will provide it. I fear he will shut me out if I force it upon him."

"I don't know about that," Candide countered, but she declined to back it up with more argument. "You know; I make more than you anyhow. You could just stay home and keep an eye on him all the time."

"I . . ." He stopped and regrouped. "You are going to want to stay home with the child for the first year at least, aren't you?"

"A year?" she sounded shocked by the notion. "Well, a while, yes. I haven't thought about how long." They both fell silently into their own thoughts. "But you could be home to be his guard all the time, then."

"I did not imagine they would not have found the culprit by now. Which reminds me that I wished to owl Arthur to ask about the progress on the investigation." He pulled a small sheet of parchment and a quill from the night stand and jotted down his question, bluntly, feeling no need for pleasantries. Franklin responded to a faint whistle from down in the drawing room, where his perch had been moved, and the message was soon off.

Snape returned to sitting on the edge of the bed and made no move to prepare for sleep.

"Severus?" Candide prompted upon noticing Snape still in his lecture robes.

"You have no sense of what his nightmares entail?" he asked.

"No. And his usual guard, Hornisham, said they woke him several times a night. I wouldn't expect him to talk to me or her about it. But he wouldn't open up to Tonks either."

"She would be the last person he would tell. He has a touch of hero worship for her."

Candide sat up, keeping the covers wrapped around her in the cooling air. "Harry has what?" she asked with a laugh.

"It has faded somewhat, but I think it is still there."

Candide said, "Well, that would explain a few things. They aren't quite right for each other, but Harry is persistent, even in the face of problems he cannot solve."

"That particular trait comes from a life of fighting evil far greater than himself."

When Snape still failed to move after many more minutes, Candide asked, "What are you thinking about?"

At her question Snape leaned over to look for something in the bedside table drawer. "Something Minerva said." He found what he was looking for, the baby monitor, and stood while tossing it once lightly in the air and catching it. "Perhaps I will put her wisdom to the test."

Harry sat propped up with his pillows, reading from his lap when Snape knocked and entered. He strode over and placed the glass half dome down on the night stand and held his hand on it for longer than necessary. Harry watched this, but turned back to his book without objecting. Snape even hesitated longer beside the bed to hear any complaints, noticing during that time that Harry had not only outgrown his pyjamas but that they had been expanded at least twice with a spell to make them fit. He could tell this because the neat stripes were strangely akilter at the shoulders and around the neck. They were just one of many things Harry had outgrown. He could easily be on his own, Snape considered, not for the first time. The thought chilled Snape; it would be impossible to keep a proper eye on him then.

"Well, good night," Snape intoned. "If you do need to talk, do not hesitate to wake me." This was a command.

Harry raised his head slightly. "I wouldn't want to disturb Candide."

"She'll understand."

Harry shrugged. "All right," he conceded stiffly.

Harry turned down the lamp wick soon after he was left alone, and he was glad to be alone for once. He flipped to his other side, trying not to worry about the dreams that may or may not come. The glass dome glowed and flickered faintly, watching and waiting.

Harry rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. The headlamps of a passing car wavered overhead. He did not want to sleep; he wanted to talk. He wanted to know where these odd dreams were coming from. Harry exhaled loudly; maybe the dreams would leave him alone tonight.

Harry was back in the dungeon, some dungeon; it wasn't one he recognized. His body was shutting down from pain through his midsection that kept him from breathing properly. Someone moved on the far side of the room. Harry did not want to look up and find out who it was. Footsteps approached and a hand grabbed hold of his hair. Forced to see his tormentor, Harry met the cold, bright gaze of Lucius Malfoy.

"I put you away," Harry said, confused.

The man laughed. "I don't feel very put away, Mr. Potter. It is, in fact, you who are incarcerated at this moment."

Harry glanced around. The very stones of the place held the stagnant aroma of desperation. "Where is this?"

"Must we go over that again?" Malfoy huffed. "You are in my personal dungeon. Awaiting my master, who will be most pleased to see you, I'm sure." He began to pace and missed Harry rubbing at his scar, which was silent. "I wish to move up in the organization," Malfoy went on, happy to talk about himself. "And I can do it by handing over you. It would be a pleasure to do so even absent reward."

"You're not handing me over to anyone," Harry said.

"You are very tiresome, Mr. Potter," Malfoy complained and raised his wand.

Harry slipped away and after struggling to stand and fend off the creatures attracted to the blood on his clothing, found the strength to slip home again.

Harry came to awareness on a gritty, warped and split floor. He raised his head and took in the half-destroyed main hall of the house. He had missed; he was not home. With substantial effort against unknown injury to his gut, Harry pushed himself to his knees and sat panting in the gloom to think desperately of what to do next. A sound interrupted Harry's panicked thoughts. He turned and found a small glowing thing approaching along the floor. Harry tried to stand, but could not manage it; he was too spent. The approaching figure hesitated and looked up at him with broad, transparent eyes. It was the ghost of small child, perhaps one year old, and it gurgled at him and put up a hand before putting it back down and crawling faster toward him an inch above the floor, leaving the dust undisturbed.

A hand contacted Harry's shoulder, making him jerk and roll to face whatever it was. He snapped awake and, after finding his bedside lamp glaring in his eyes, attempted to roll back on his front and pull his pillow thoroughly over his head. But the light duvet was too tangled around him to even get both arms free. A figure rose up and bent over him and, with strong hands, tugged on the covers binding him. Harry, vexed at treatment better suited to someone much younger, nevertheless lay still until he was freed, because struggling was only drawing the process out longer. He rolled away while the duvet was carefully straightened over him and punched his pillow a few times for good measure.

The now cocooning bedcovers eased Harry's energized nerves. He breathed in and out through the familiar scent of his pillow.

"Harry," the expected voice finally came.

Harry grunted a reply but did not move. The bed shifted, indicating that Snape had stood. Harry did not imagine he would give up that easily and, indeed, Snape had not. Kali's cage twanged open and Harry felt her escaping those confines, only to be wrapped up more thoroughly in Snape's hands.

Snape returned to sitting on the edge of the bed with Harry's pet pressed into the crook of his shoulder. The animal had not been sleeping any better than her master, so she happily burrowed into the warmth. Snape ran his knuckles over her furred back and her wings went slack. Harry fell slack too, more deeply into his pillow, pressed there by the connection with his pet.

"What are you dreaming?" came after many quiet minutes.

"I don't want to talk about it."

Snape continued stroking the Chimrian's fur. "I insist," he said. When Harry did not reply, he said, "What was in the dream that you were having just now?"

Harry sighed and rolled over to sit up. He really did not wish to discuss that one. If the child were in this house, then it would have been Snape's child, killed about the age Harry himself had been attacked by Voldemort the first time.

"I was dreaming that I was in the wrong place. And I couldn't escape. Well, I could escape, but only to a place worse than the last. I couldn't find my way home." Harry hoped that answer satisfied his guardian.

Snape stated, "You need not worry about getting lost if you do not leave."

Harry thought over his dreams of the last few nights. "Do you think it's possible I'm seeing other Planes for real in my nightmares?"

"I doubt it."

Harry frowned and rubbed his hands over his scalp. His eyes were sore and it was late, too late to be awake let alone debating such things. "Where are these bad nightmares coming from, then?" he asked.

"Your subconscious, presumably." Snape adjusted Kali down into the crook of his elbow, and folded her wings back. The creature chirped in minor protest but stayed put. "Since you refuse to tell me the contents of them I can not help you with explaining their meaning."

"They seem like other places. Real places," Harry said.

"And they may very well be," Snape said. At Harry's confused expression, Snape explained, "Since every possibility you could imagine could indeed have a Plane of its own, there is no distinction between your imagining something and its existence."

Harry stared at him as he took that in. The lamp flame cast a chiseling light on Snape's features. Snape gave him a little time, then added, "I do not think the other Planes are the germination of your dreams."

"How do you know?"

"I don't know. It is simply more power than I can imagine you having."

Harry snorted faintly. "I don't have that much power. One of my dreams is of Rodgers relentlessly putting me on the floor like he does during training every day, nearly, in the furtherance of building up our spell capacity."

Kali tried to climb out of Snape's grasp so he handed her over to Harry, who let her make her way to his shoulder where she stretched and groomed her scarred wings.

"There is more than one kind of power," Snape pointed out. "How well one does recreating the preponderance of prescribed spells that untold witches and wizards have invented over these last hundreds of years is only one kind, and it is the least interesting kind. Spells for object repair, Muggle befuddlement, and even self-stirring cauldrons aside, the vast majority of Ministry-approved spells are pointless as well as outdated. And any magical person with a wand can do them provided they are coached long enough. That is precisely what Hogwarts was set up to accomplish—rigid standardization of magic. We make a lot of noise about promoting and nurturing magic, but in reality it is enforced mediocrity."

"But it makes magical people safe-" Harry began.

"Yes. It does that, by providing a structured outlet for magical power that may, if given time left to its own devices, create a more interesting one of its own. How many people do you know who travel in and out of the underworld?" He answered his own question, as if to drive the point home. "Yourself, one shaman that we know of . . ."

"Vampires can," Harry said.

"Yes. Because they wield old magic . . . raw, pre-historic magic. Raw energy transformed and molded at will. The fabric of reality itself parted and twisted to your wishes. That is what has changed your eyes. I suspect most handed that power would be destroyed by it. You channeled powerful raw magic as an infant and it was that occasion I believe which has made you an able vessel for it." He had been leaning forward to urge his point across, but now clasped his hands and rocked back. "This formulaic magic the rest of us do is dwarfed by what you are capable of if you work out how to put it to functional use." His gaze shifted to the unlit lamp on the near side of the bed. "You slip between possibilities of fate the way others enter a vault at Gringotts. I watched you carve the very magic out of someone. What greater powers do you want?"

"Lockhart was already damaged. His magic was loose," Harry said, trying to excuse what he had done.

"But you could do it again," Snape stated as an invitation that forced a denial or confirmation.

Harry thought that over. Kali circled his neck, pricking him. He plucked her down to the bedcovers without a glance and held her there. "Probably," he said because he couldn't imagine what might stop him from succeeding.

"There is no greater power in the realm of magic, in my opinion. Death is easy to bring about and requires no magic. But rendering someone unmagical is something else entirely."

"Rodgers can put me on the floor at will," Harry complained.

"For now, that is. And you can negate his curses later in a manner only the most accomplished Healer can."

"I suppose," Harry said, still doubtful.

Snape watched him for a minute as he wrangled his pet, who was keen on taking flight back to her cage now. As if pre-judging Harry's ongoing thoughts, he said, "Voldemort was very good at maximizing the spells he found, at pushing the edge of what a spell could do—generally the dark edge of it. But he needed the spell to start with and was constantly hunting for forgotten ones. You, on the other hand, do not even need an existing spell as germination. You have an instinct for detecting and shaping the raw energies of magic that is extremely rare, and it classifies you with sorcerers. Your trainer, in a fight with no rules, would stand no chance against you."

"I wouldn't do that to him, though, like I did to Voldemort."

"It does not matter."

"Yes, it does," Harry argued. "I'm an Auror; I'm supposed to fight fair."

"Then work out a way to use your instinctive power to do that. Can your trainer block a Forbidden Curse?"

"No, of course not."

Snape tilted his head with an expression of see?

"You're saying I can work out more ways of using . . . non-formulaic magic against formulaic magic."

"I don't see any reason why you cannot. Working without a guide, it may take some careful experimentation to figure out how. I emphasize careful."

"Why are you telling me this?" Harry asked. "Usually you want me to limit what I'm attempting."

More resigned, Snape said, "I do not know the source of your nightmares and the only one you would relate involved what I can only interpret as a fear of being bested. Are the others like that?"

Harry thought about his answer before shaking his head. "A bit, but not exactly."

"What do they involve, would you say?"

"Er, getting myself into trouble with these raw powers."

Snape stood and shook his dressing gown straight. "I am not troubled by your fearing that," he said adamantly. He slipped his hands into his pockets. "Something more you wish to discuss?"

Harry's eyes felt like lead. "No. Thanks though."

Snape departed and Harry released his pet to fly back to her cage, but as soon as she was free, she clambered back up his chest. He clutched her close so she would not claw him when he moved suddenly, and fell back onto his pillow.

Harry slept eventually and more dreams flowed by, murky and anxious, and in the morning, his body resisted waking up and he only went down to breakfast because he was ordered to.

"You can retire early, or nap later even, but come down now," Snape said from the doorway.

Harry suppressed a flush of embarrassment at Candide's sympathetic smile when he arrived at the table. He quickly picked up the Sunday Prophet and flipped it open as a barricade.

An article caught his eye about the Goblins threatening exactly what he had overheard Tonks mention: that increased security may be necessary and everyone should be prepared to be subjected to it next time they wish to visit their vault. The bank security staff may institute a gauntlet of anti-illusory spells and forced potion antidote consumption should a customer be deemed to be behaving suspiciously or has set off the nose of the bank's newly trained bloodhound rats. The new procedures are expected to result in an additional two hour delay in servicing vault access requests.

The interviewed Goblin stated that these procedures were necessary to sort out those being cheated by others from those seeking to cheat the bank directly. The article went on to say that lines at the bank were expected to be extremely long Monday morning as witches and wizards attempted to set themselves up ahead of any increased inconveniences.

The next article, buried under a column of adverts showing the latest mufflers and muffs for winter, also peaked Harry's interest. It read simply: Ministry Totem and Potion Technician G. Felton is still recovering in hospital from injuries sustained in an unspecified magical accident at his home. The Minister for Magic today stated that the Crack Magical Reversal Squad dispatched was successful in keeping the suspicious nature of the fire secret from the Muggle authorities despite the large amount of damage caused.

Harry's mind harkened back to the wet ground and flashing lights of the scene that night, feeling a small rush at knowing he was finally getting to be part of what transpired in the official magical world. He put the paper down and Snape asked, "How was your sleep the remainder of the night?"

Harry shrugged. In his peripheral vision he could see the two of them sharing a meaningful look and found himself chafing under its implication. He ate breakfast quickly and excused himself to do his readings.

The morning dragged by slowly. Harry continually thought of places he would rather be, like visiting his friends, but he would need to arrange a guard to follow him and at the moment, he could pretend he did not have a guard at all.

He sent Hedwig off to Elizabeth with a letter and told her that she could use his owl for the day if she needed to send some post. Harry wished he could do more; his friend's situation irked him whenever his mind wandered over to thoughts of it. If he only had more gold.

Harry's thoughts wandered off from the magical weather book open before him and back in time to when Lord Freelander offered to cover any expenses Harry may incur in his apprenticeship. If Harry had taken Freelander up as a patron, he would perhaps have enough money now to help out Elizabeth, at least until she could arrange for loans. He supposed that he could still go to Freelander now and ask, as hard as that would be on his pride.

Harry put his book down and dug into his trunk for some of his good stationery. But as he leaned over to write out a letter in the neatest hand possible, he decided to ask simply for a chance to speak to him about some unspecified assistance, with the notion that once he was standing before the wealthy wizard, the man would have a more difficult time saying no.

Harry had to make an envelope out of another sheet of stationery because there were none nice enough that matched. He then borrowed Candide's company owl, with the stipulation that it follow her to the office because she was to spend the afternoon there and would need him.

Harry took the weather book downstairs and out to the back garden. He had never really thought about different shapes and altitudes of clouds before and what that might mean regarding what the cloud would do. Outside, the sky was a ubiquitous grey and clouds did not so much have shape as represent a layer looming over the world. Harry paged through the illustrations, but did not see any resemblance to what he saw above him now. The breeze fluttered the page corners as he flipped them. The first diagram was the most interesting, it showed an great anvil shape with angled columns of lightning and hail ejecting from it. The sky did not contain anything this threatening, or if it did, it was hidden.

Sirius' bike leaned forlornly against the garden wall under a tarpaulin. Harry tucked the book away under his arm and went over to clear the newly grown ivy off it, thinking that he did not get out nearly often enough on it. Pale green vines had grown through the spokes of the wheels. Harry tugged them free, noticing for the first time an emblem on the wheel hub. It was inlaid glass in the shape of a goldfinch in flight and even on such a cloudy day it caught the light and glittered. Harry tugged the tarpaulin back over, secured it, and went back inside.

Harry opened his book again at the dining room table in hopes of lunch, which arrived when Snape and Candide did. Despite his continuing low-level embarrassment, Harry savored the feel of all three of them together.

Candide repeatedly checked the clock before topping her plate up from the heaping plates provided. She and Snape debated minor household issues in a casual manner, very unlike the Dursleys. Harry picked his book back out of his pocket and flipped it open, partly to demonstrate that he really did spend all his time reading.

The book fell open to the page with the sky-anvil. According to the text, the Goblin wars were the primary impetus for the development of weather curses involving hail and tornados. Trouble was, directing the storm at the enemy was not a certainty and surrounding areas or even one's own side were often the victim. Harry rubbed his eyes and yawned, wishing he had slept better. He wondered about the goldfinch emblem and whether it was the symbol of the bike's maker. Harry also wondered that he had never noticed it before.

Candide stood hurriedly before lunch was finished, Accioed her cloak from the entryway, and gathered her things from beside the hearth.

"I'll remain another night," Snape said in reply to a question from her, making Harry glance up again.

Candide smiled at this news and insisted she would only be absent a few hours, at most.

Harry put the book aside and stared at his lunch, at the chunks of bread soaking into the dark gravy. It was the oddest thing, Winky had never served yesterday's joint up quite like this before. It was such a small thing, but it loomed large in his sleepy brain.

Snape moved to the window to collect post from an owl, blocking the grey light for a moment before he reclosed the sash and moved away again. With a slash of a short knife from the mantel, he opened the envelope, then paced slowly to read it. Harry watched him do this with a dull, but building sense of unease. Snape stopped before the mantel and rested his letter-laden hand upon it and continued to read with his other hand propped on his hip.

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

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

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

"You are in the right place," Snape said with a quiet confidence that indicated he was ready and waiting to say it.

Harry opened his mouth but required a second attempt to form his thoughts before saying, "You've already thought of this."

Snape dropped his gaze and sat back, eyes hooded. "Yes."

"Why didn't you say anything?" Harry demanded, quickly getting upset. He propped his hands on the table, as though ready to launch himself somewhere.

"And distress you in this manner? Whatever for?"

Harry pulled his hands back. "I . . ." He swallowed hard.

Snape said, "I do truly believe you are in the right place."

"Of course you would think that," Harry said without really thinking it through.

"Why would I think that?" Snape challenged.

"Well . . ." But Harry did not have a good reason; it was just gut instinct made him say that. Many little things in the last week now looked off in retrospect. His heart rate sped up as his mind latched onto each in turn.

Snape sat back more comfortably, in contrast to Harry's elevating anxiety, and said, "Do you want to know why I think you are in the right place?"

"Yes, please," Harry said, desperately wanting to be certain when he was so much the opposite that he felt almost paralyzed.

"For starters, I don't believe there can be too many of you with this skill. Yes, there are other Harry Potters, an infinite number of them in fact, but how many of them can do as you do, that is, jump between Planes?"

Harry had not considered that. "I . . . I don't know," he said, soothed simply by Snape's attentive effort at explaining.

"I expect not many," Snape answered his own question. "A handful perhaps at most. As well, how many would just happened to have left and returned home at exactly the same time as you did?"

"Oh," Harry said, starting to understand. "You're saying . . . that if I am in the wrong place that another Harry had to have left this place and gone to the wrong place, my place and not returned, so that I've taken his place?" Even to Harry that sounded quite the string of long odds.

"That is precisely what I am saying," Snape intoned, sounding pleased. He waited patiently while Harry thought that over. A minute later he said, "I have another . . . point to make in this regard."

Harry met his gaze and found nothing strange in it, just Snape, as he understood and expected him to be. "What's that?" Harry asked.

"Before being poisoned and accidentally meeting with Headmaster Voldemort, you were not worried that you were in the wrong place, correct? You felt that you were at home?"

"Well, yes, of course," Harry said, uncertain where this was leading.

"But you had left and returned from another Plane once previous to that escapade."

Harry's flesh solidified on his arms in a wave of nervous energy and he held his breath. "That's right. I did," he agreed, remembering his visit to Weaver's End.

Snape hesitated, but finally said, "I did not intend to alarm you with that revelation. I just wished you to recognize that you returned home safely on that occasion as well."

Harry gave that due consideration. He thought about all the things he had done after that in complete ignorance of the possibility that he could be in the wrong world.

"Do you think you returned to the wrong place that time, as well as this most recent time?" Snape asked, with just the faintest, barest whiff of snide.

"No," Harry managed, still thinking things over. "I hadn't thought of it at all. Nothing strange happened to make me wonder. There's been some strange stuff since . . ."

"If you look for anomalies you are guaranteed to find them. But what caused you to think of it this time?"

Harry gestured at his plate. "The joint was reheated."

"Winky is doing that for Candide. Warm food is more healthful," Snape stated.

Harry stared at the meat juice pooling on his plate, solidifying at the edges into white fat. "Oh." A smile flickered over Snape's lips, prompting Harry to demand, "You think that's funny?"

"I am not by any means amused by your distress. I find it amusing that such a grand philosophical uncertainty about one's very existence could be triggered by a warm plate of food." He uncrossed his arms and sat forward slightly. "I will happily sit here as long as necessary to convince you of my certainty."

Harry bit his lip and stared out at the main hall. "You realized I may be the wrong Harry and you didn't do anything?" he demanded.

"I realized the possibility and quickly dismissed it. I was certain that I had the right one back. That is all."

"And you didn't say anything," Harry repeated more forcefully.

"No," Snape agreed.

Harry frowned at the room in general. "Anything else you aren't telling me?" Harry asked sharply.

Snape matched Harry's challenging glare. "Several things. In good time I will, perhaps, tell you what they are."

"What?" Harry asked a little smartly. "When I am old enough to hear them?"

"Age has little to do with it."

"You're reminding me of Dumbledore," Harry criticized, crossing his arms and sitting back. But he could not hold onto his annoyance; the realization that Snape had left him here, alone with his pregnant wife, kept seeping in and melting his peevishness. Snape absolutely would not have done that if he harbored any doubts.

"What if I am not in the right place, though?" Harry quietly asked again. "What if?"

"If you cannot tell the difference, does it matter?"

"Of course it matters," Harry retorted. "I want to be home."

"If you cannot tell the difference, it IS home."

Harry rocked forward and gestured with his arms. "But, what if something is different that I just don't happen to know about?"

Snape smirked lightly. "You and Schrödinger," he quipped.

Harry huffed and dropped his head. He pushed his now cold plate an inch forward and it sparkled away.

"I wish you to feel secure with where you are," Snape said. "And I reiterate: if you do not wish to wonder if you have returned home, do not leave again."

"I hadn't planned on leaving again. I didn't plan on leaving in the first place."

Harry stubbornly argued further, but eventually grudgingly accepted that he could do nothing that evening about his situation, even if he did decide that things were askew. If he took off in search of a more rightful place, he could easily end up in far less desirable quarters; that he was certain of.

Harry sat in the library, looking through one of the heavier law books for past rulings on weather manipulation. Partly he was curious if he went out and tried some of those spells, would he get into trouble for it. He thought it better to research it himself rather than ask their trainer directly. When Snape came to the door, Harry had lost himself in this task and found it wearisome to return to his earlier anxious state. It was far easier to accept that this was home unless he encountered something truly, hopelessly amiss.

"How are you doing?" Snape gently asked.

"Fine. I wish you hadn't asked."

"Not like me to do so?" Snape airily returned.

"Something like that."

Lips slightly curled, but with a far more Slytherin smile in his eyes, Snape sat on the leather divan. "I was going to ask if there was anything I could do, but I see now that it would be best to be miserable to you so that you feel better."

Funny thing was, every time Snape spoke so calmly about the possibility that he may be in the wrong place, it did make Harry feel better. Harry said, "So, you think most of the other Planes are worse ones? Why?"

"Law of averages. You believe things worked out well for you, do you not?"

"I'm not dead, true," Harry agreed, thinking of his last trip to another Plane where he had not even survived his first full year at Hogwarts.

Snape considered him in depth before saying, "That is your primary criteria for whether your life is working out for you?"

Harry shrugged faintly, then laughed lightly. "This is my life, what could I have changed about it?" He frowned and amended, "I mean, there were some mistakes I could have avoided . . ."

"It is not just your actions that would invoke change," Snape said, intent on interrupting. "It is everyone else's coupled with random chance falling a different way. Cascading differences. Interacting cascades of differences, even."

"So, are you saying that because this place is so close to what I expect, that is has to be the right place?"

Snape shook his head. "I am tempted to lie and say "yes," but I won't. There are as likely to be Planes with just a single incidental difference from what you are expecting as there are to be Planes where nothing is the same, where you and I and even Hogwarts do not even exist."

Harry scratched his head and thought aloud: "I wouldn't be able to get to those places, because I wouldn't have anything to focus on."

Snape clapped his hands down on the divan and stood up. "I do not want to urge you to explore, so I am going to leave that point un-addressed." He stood with his hair hanging forward, looking at Harry. "Is there anything I can do for you?"

Harry put aside the book he had out. "Maybe we can work on a few spells. I want to try what you said."

Snape's hair fell farther forward as he nodded.

Harry quickly hovered the main hall furniture to the side and took up a position before the front wall, as far from the windows as possible. He held his wand out, but then lowered it. "Can you cast a spell with very little force on it?" he asked his guardian as he took up an opposing position as though to duel.

Snape raised his wand and Harry held his down. "If you are going to leave yourself undefended, then that is all I can do," Snape said. He cast a heat charm at Harry.

Harry felt the spell brush him like a passing sunbeam, then fade. The counter would be so easy through the wand, but how else could he possibly negate it? "How should I do this?" he asked.

"I do not know," Snape said, "How do you block Forbidden Curses?"

"That's easy," Harry said, not noticing Snape's amused reaction to his flippancy. "Those come from the Dark Plane. They open a crack into the underworld. That I can control. I can shut it, even from a distance like this. But a charm, where does that come from?"

"Where does any magic come from?" Snape rhetorically asked.

"Charms don't feel like anything," Harry went on. "Curses I can feel but I can't do anything about the ones that aren't truly dark magic. At least I don't know how."

Snape aimed his wand again. "We'll work with curses then for the moment." He cast a very weak Blasting Curse at Harry, so weak it merely ruffled his robes.

Harry felt the curse being generated but it came from nowhere in particular, just ballooned into being. He felt it ripple around him, both as a force of movement and as a force of magic but the two were hard to separate. "Can you cast something that doesn't flow like that one, so I can sort out what is the magic and what is the result of it?"

Snape angled his head in a kind of nod. "A Ice Spear Curse, perhaps?"

Harry could feel this one two ways more clearly, but that did not help him sort out what to do about it. He signaled for Snape to recast it several times then held up his hand because he was nearly shivering. "This is like learning Legilimency again," he complained. He rubbed his arms vigorously. "You don't know any heating curses, do you?"

Dryly, Snape replied, "There is a sunburn curse, but it will damage your eyes if used repeatedly."

"How about some other one then."

Alternating various weak spells, they worked at it for an hour or so, until Harry was bored with trying. "My readings are starting to sound good again," he said. "I'll try to work out something during drills, while also countering the normal way."

Ginny and Ron came for dinner that evening. They did not expect Snape to still be at home, and Harry had not owled to tell them otherwise. Conversation at the table was a little subdued as a result. Snape himself broke one of the lulls with: "So, Ms. Weasley, still intending to become an Auror?"

"Yes," Ginny replied primly. "I will apply again next year." The way she stated this implied she expected an argument.

"Perhaps you should regularly get together for drills with Harry, in that case," Snape said. "He roped me into it this afternoon." He spoke with an coldly factual edge that led Harry to conclude he was up to something.

Ginny's face brightened. "I'd love to get more practice. My brothers either pull their spells to avoid hurting me, or use some difficult and painful spell I don't know to get me to want to quit."

"Drills are just supposed to be easy, repeated practice," Harry said, "so that you can react on instinct for the basic attacks and counters."

"I'd love to get a chance to work on spells with you."

"Get assigned as my guard in the evenings when Tonks is on duty," Harry said. "Someone has to be here anyway. Point out to your dad that if he ends up with Vespera as a daughter-in-law, he will need an Auror in the family."

"Yeah, good idea. I'll ask dad to do that. I've been trying to work my way through the books your fellow apprentice, Aaron, recommended, but Ron usually insists we do something fun instead." She sounded criticizing, prompting Ron to say, "It's not like you make a fuss when I do that."

"I need someone around the house who is also swotting," Ginny complained moodily.

"I need a guard who is more fun than Hornisham from Control of Magical Creatures," Harry said, thinking having his friends as guards regularly may make this rule more livable since there was no sign of it being lifted in the near future.

After his friends had departed, Harry turned on his guardian. "What was that about?"

Snape, raised an innocent brow. "What?"

"Contriving to have Ginny over for regular spell practice."

Snape sipped his sherry and stated, "I thought you wished to work additionally on your alternative curse counter. A great deal of trial and error will be required to work out a method, assuming you can manage it at all."

Harry set his jaw, but did not accuse him further. He suspected Snape of preferring he be in a relationship with Ginny rather than Tonks. But Snape was playing ignorant and he would not budge from that position once he was in it.

That night, Harry slept without waking from any bad dreams. Snape, doubting the monitor, went to check on him directly, just before dawn, and found him soundly slumbering with the covers undisturbed. A few hours later, Snape prodded Harry awake.

"Huh?" Harry grunted, raising his head out of the delicious depths of his pillow.

"Since you are doing all right, I was thinking of returning to Hogwarts this morning. Breakfast in the Great Hall is in just a quarter hour."

Harry cleared his throat and pushed himself to a sitting position. "Yeah," he muttered, still waking up. "If you need to go back. I'm fine." Indeed, he had slept through the night for the first time in a week. He studied Snape, studying him back. "I mean, it's not like we don't prefer having you around."

"Hm," Snape muttered.

"Look at Candide's reaction when she found you home," Harry pointed out.

Snape straightened. "I've been meaning to talk to her about that."

Harry punched him on the leg. "Severus," he chastised him, despite suspecting him of making a joke. "You should be taking better care of her."

"She insists all is well," Snape said, clearly closing the topic.

"She works far too hard. And it's only getting worse. You need to tell her to cut back."

"I have done so," Snape informed him. "She is rather conscientious about doing her job well, for which I commend her, even as tedious as I would personally find her activities to be."

"As opposed to brewing, which is just about the same level of excitement."

"Accounting forms rarely blow up in your face and burn your house down," Snape drolly pointed out. "And you will note, I am rarely called to brew any longer."

"Maybe that explains your newly sunny disposition."

"You are being sarcastic, I assume," Snape stated. "Are you meaning to imply that I have been exceptionally unsunny?"

"No . . ." Harry rubbed his chin. "I don't know."

Snape huffed. "How many times in your life have you found things to be different than you believed them to be . . . found that you were mistaken about some major object or fact?"

"Loads of times," Harry admitted.

"You will drive yourself mad if you continually assume the worst about ones you encounter from here on out."

Harry decided to let the topic drop. "Are you going to be home next weekend again?"

"If you wish me to be," Snape said.

Harry was torn badly between an instinct for independence and strong liking of the times when they were all home together. It felt childish to insist Snape return so soon. Instead, he said, "Halloween is coming up soon. You'll have to be at school for that because it's always chaos." He then added: "I need to plan a party."

"A small party. Too difficult to guard you at a large one."

Harry clasped his hands together. "That's one nice thing about you being home: I can pretend my life is normal. On that note, who's replacing you?"

"Ms. Tonks is downstairs, waiting."

Parts of Harry, hitherto asleep, woke up with a wash of tingles. Harry, thoughts well Occluded, said merely, "Okay, " with what he was proud to believe was not the slightest hint of what use he intended to put the short time to before heading into the Ministry.

Snape started to leave, but paused to say: "Half of what your trainer has over you is psychological. Cease to let him have that easy advantage and I suspect you will do better against him."

"I don't think it's that. He really is . . ." Harry began.

Snape lifted a finger toward Harry's nose and said, "See. That precisely."

"I'll try."

Harry did try, but not with much visible success. That week during demonstrations and drills opposite his trainer, he felt he was battling himself as well as the spells. Trying to battle the assumption that he would get beat was a distraction from actually trying to beat him. But his trainer became less grudging with his scant praise, so perhaps Harry was progressing, he thought, as he nursed his always sore wand elbow and returned to his seat.

It was mid-week and Harry had another distraction that day; he had an appointment with Lord Freelander and he still had not figured out exactly how to approach the man, what arguments to use, or even what to say. At the end of the day, Aaron was assigned as his guard, which Harry was pleased by because given his bearing he would make a better-than-average impression on Harry's hoped-for patron.

"I need to run an errand this afternoon; if you don't mind," Harry said to his fellow as they were packing up their things.

"Somewhere we can Apparate to, or will this be shanks mare?" Aaron asked in the attitude of a polite butler with a funny accent.

"We can Apparate," Harry assured him, smiling at his fellow's antics.

With Harry handling the traveling, they arrived a moment later at the base of the drive leading to the Freelander estate.

"Ah," Aaron said. "I've been here. Been a long while, though."

"I was here just once, at night for a dinner party; wasn't sure I could find it in the daytime," Harry said, making conversation as they walked between the stone posts and up the gently curving, white gravel path.

"Lawn bowling party, I think it was last," Aaron said in a bored tone that came out haughty. "Must have been, well, ten years ago; I was still in Hogwarts. That was back when my mother attended more than she hosted." He turned a circle as he walked, taking in the grounds. "Amazing to think, no one to inherit all this."

Harry decided to keep to himself the fact that he himself could have.

The butler promptly escorted them in and Aaron agreed to wait in the entry hall for Harry to return. Harry followed the slightly stooped and squinting butler through several shuttered rooms into one flooded with light.

"Ah, Mr. Potter, do come in," Freelander said. He used his cane to rise from a small, white baroque desk and came around to where a pair of long blue couches dominated the floor, surrounded by an army of chairs. He gestured for Harry to take a tall chair whose cushion turned out to be softer than it appeared.

Freelander sat on a couch and set his cane aside. "Well, I expected this visit to have come a year ago, if it was going to occur at all. But, my offer of assistance was open ended and still stands, of course." He gazed at Harry frankly as he asked, "So, what can I do for you?"

"It isn't actually for me, the assistance isn't," Harry awkwardly began. "What I'm trying to say is, a friend and neighbor of mine, a witch in a Muggle household, has begun to find it difficult to remain at home. She's attending Oxford now," Harry rushed in to say, since he felt he was losing his audience. "And she wants to continue that, but it is difficult what with being cut off from her family's assistance. Well, I would help her myself if I could. I know what it's like to be stuck in a house that forbids magic, but I don't have any funds of my own. I thought first of coming to you for money for myself and getting help for her from my adoptive father . . . but that seemed a bit silly, so I thought I'd come with a direct appeal for her."

"What is this young lady's name?"

"Elizabeth Peterson. Her mum's a witch, but doesn't practice magic much at the insistence of her husband. They live just down the road in Shrewsthorpe."

"I assume the daughter did not attend Hogwarts if she gained a place at Oxford."

"No, she didn't. But there are loads of magical tutors around. And she does want to learn more than her mother taught her growing up, before her father decided he didn't like it."

Freelander stared out the window where leaf-filtered sunlight sparkled. Harry waited patiently while he pondered. Freelander finally said, "Did you come alone, Mr. Potter? I read somewhere that you were always to be under guard."

"No, I came with a guard. He is waiting in the entry hall."

Freelander plucked a small wand from his pocket and used it to jerk the thick bell cord in the corner of the room. Far off in the vast house a muted ringing sounded. A servant in white came to the doorway.

"Bring tea, Benjamin, and bring our other guest to join us." He placed his hands on his lap and sitting a little straighter said, "We might as well enjoy a spot while we consider the problem you have brought to us, Mr. Potter." He sat thoughtfully, until there was a noise near the door. "I have to admit I find your appeal for another to be a tribute to your character, and reinforces that I did not make a mistake in my earlier judgement of you."

"Mr. Wickem, sir," the servant announced from the doorway.

Freelander's head came up faster than expected. "Mr. Wickem," he repeated, not quite a greeting. "You are here with Mr. Potter?"

Aaron slid over to them, navigating the excessive furniture with practiced ease and gave a bow. "Yes sir. I'm the guard of the moment." He gestured gallantly back at the doorway. "Though, I'm a little reluctant to interrupt this meeting of the Harry Potter Appreciation Society."

Freelander colored slightly. "Have a seat, Mr. Wickem." The statement was not so much welcoming as resigned to being polite.

Crooked grin still in place, Aaron accepted the indicated chair and said lightly, "Not that I doubt I could pass the initiation into such an able society . . ." He sat back, crossed his arms, but held them formally high on his chest, and winked at Harry. He looked very much in his natural environment. "Knowing Harry, it would involve demonstrable skill at Quidditch and dueling someone evil. I'm certain I could manage, given some time to prepare." After a beat, he added: "I'm confident of a win as long as it's a Malfoy I get to duel."

Tea arrived, just in time, by Harry's judgement. It came on two large silver trays, one stacked with little sandwiches, the other with biscuits.

"Please." Freelander indicated they could start with a gesture. With a slight scowl marring his middle-aged brow, Freelander said to Aaron, "I'm a little curious how you came to be assigned as a guard to Mr. Potter."

"I was drafted. It's a bit like being assigned to the trenches in France, except it involves more photographers and better beer."

Harry had learned a bit about his fellow over the last year. One of the things he had learned was that Aaron pulled out his flippant silliness when he was trying to remain aloof. Harry was not as familiar with Lord Freelander, but his growing sense of vague dismay was confirmed when he said, "Strange choice," with clear disappointment.

Harry took a deep breath and held it. Aaron, did not take this comment too personally, or if he did, he kept it hidden in his move to sit more casually in a chair that resisted it by design.

Harry needed something from Freelander and found himself limited in defensive comments as a result. Very factually and conversationally, he said, "Aaron is in the Auror's program with me. We are second-years together."

Freelander froze with his small teacup poised before him. "The Auror's program?" Moving slowly, he took a sip and returned his cup and saucer to the low table between them. "It was my understanding that academic qualifications for that are quite high. You did not even sit for any N.E.W.T.s did you, Mr. Wickem?"

"Not while at school, I didn't," Aaron said, while Harry glanced between them and considered that Freelander had a pretty good memory and kept surprisingly abreast of his bowling party guests. "I didn't feel doing so at the time," Aaron explained. "But I decided it was what I wanted to do. So I hired tutors and kept retaking the admissions examinations until I did well enough to get in."

Freelander seemed be reassessing. "Fine determination on your part."

Airily, Aaron said, "I was bored. I needed something to do besides party every night."

Freelander hefted his teacup again after the servant refilled it. His finger tapped the handle as he composed what to say. "And have you settled down in other ways as well?"

"Ah, no," Aaron admitted, slightly wistful. "I haven't managed to excel at that examination yet."

Freelander considered Aaron for half a minute, before turning back to Harry. "Well, Mr. Potter," he began, sounding less himself. "I think we can make some kind of arrangement. If you don't mind, perhaps we will put your name on it. Structure it as an open fellowship and see what happens long-term."

"Thank you, sir."

Aaron glanced curiously between them, but remained silent between sips of tea and bites of biscuit and prim bites of biscuit with pinkies extended.

On the walk back down the drive, with the sparkling white gravel shifting underfoot, Harry's thoughts moved from pleasure at solving Elizabeth's financial problems to a niggling curiosity about Freelander.

Harry asked, "So, was it a bit odd to you that Lord Freelander remembered that you hadn't tried for your N.E.W.T.s?"

It was a dozen or so steps before Aaron answered. He sunk his hands in his pockets and slumped slightly before replying. "My mum used to be more in his circle when I was in school." The crunching gravel took over again until they reached the gate posts where they stopped. The breeze emerging from the trees felt chilled despite the warm day. "The expectations were so high. Honestly, it's one of the reasons I didn't take my N.E.W.T.s. Everyone expected the world out of me and my friends, and heck, my parents had enough money; it didn't matter what I did."

"Well, but, I'd think you'd want to make your own way. Wouldn't you want to?"

Aaron lost his grim attitude. "In the end I decided that. It helped that I was attempting something no one, but no one, thought I could do. For the first few years, they thought it was funny, then they thought I was unhealthfully obsessed. Then they decided I wasn't as much fun at parties anymore. I may have given up on my fourth try except what my father said to me a few weeks before he died. He said, he finally believed that I really could do it—could get an Auror apprenticeship."

"You've never mentioned your dad," Harry said.

"He was gone a lot when I was growing up. He was on the Continent all the time on business. I thought mum would have more trouble getting along without him, but she's done fine."

"Speaking of doing fine, want to try to catch up on readings this afternoon at my place?" Harry asked.

"You mean, actually do the readings for once?" Aaron asked, sounding ambivalent.

Harry grinned. "That's what I meant."

"You're not trying to take advantage of this momentary weakness I'm having because of that little exchange in there, are you?"

"No," Harry insisted.

Aaron stared off along the high stone wall surrounding the Freelander estate. "Yeah, why not? Let's do some revising."

Harry arrived home to find Ginny on the couch in the main hall, chatting with Winky, who stood shyly before the witch, clutching her tea-towel.

"I'm sorry, I lost track of the time, I think," Harry said.

Ginny stood, eying Aaron as she sidled over to them. "No worries. I'm not assigned for another hour, just thought you'd be home early." And, Harry could see in her gaze, she was hoping to see Aaron.

"Shall we run some drills? I'll show you a new counter and you can help me work on something I'm trying to figure out."

"And I shall . . . ?" Aaron asked airily.

"You can read aloud to both of us," Harry said. "This will be just like Hogwarts again, us all studying together."

Aaron took up a spot on the couch, opened one of the books from his bag and began flipping through it while the two of them rearranged the remaining furniture off to the side. "Except we were stuck in the dungeon, you got a tower."

"Are Slytherins always so whingy?" Ginny asked.

"I Am. Not. Whinging," Aaron stated primly. "I never whinge." He flipped a few pages more, seeming nervous maybe, which Harry took as a good sign for Ginny. "I go straight to all out fit if you must know. Shall we begin? Chapter Eight: Counters and Counteractions," he announced to the room. Then mumbled, "I'm going to need a pub after this."

"Sounds good to me," Ginny said, eyes asparkle as she raised her wand to match Harry's.



Author's Notes: Something about my workday having no overlap with anyone else's has freed up some time, surprisingly... Ah, and scenes got shifted around, thought we'd have some action this round but I was wrong. And sorry for the change in format, mid-story; I'm trying to replace the scene breaks with real transitions.

Next: Chapter 16


Inside the pub a burly, bald man stood wiping down the bar, deep-set eyes nearly hidden under his long eyebrows. He stared at Harry along with everyone else. All conversation had stopped when the door opened. Harry limped up to the bar, not needing much fakery to manage this and ordered a butterbeer with a raspy, weak voice.

The bartender laughed mockingly but he fetched a dusty old bottle and opened it with his teeth before plonking it down. Harry tossed two Sickles on the bar, saying, "Use the change to buy a few rags that are only decade old."

Harry picked up his drink and wandered to an empty table, on the way scooping up off the end of the bar what he had come for: a ragged pile of old Daily Prophets.



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