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Chapter 16 — Halloween Friends

Aaron returned from the light-haloed bar through the darkness with more drinks, sloshing some because a mug caught the edge of the high table.

"Thank you for buying another round," Ginny said.

Harry brushed droplets of beer off his trousers and said, "We should have waited for Thursday to go out, maybe."

Ginny shot him a look meant to dissuade such talk and Harry subtly held up his hands in surrender. Aaron regained his stool and slid the drinks to each of them over the suddenly less sticky tabletop.

"You should do fine next year," Aaron said to Ginny, continuing their conversation after clearing his throat. "You understood more of those two chapters I read than I did."

Ginny shrugged and dropped her gaze.

Aaron again cleared his raspy throat. "Someone else will have to read next time. Though, I'll admit, I paid attention to every word by reading aloud. That's why a second beer was essential." He held his mug up for a casual clacking of glasses. "If we can turn revising and practice into a party, count me in every time."

After a thirst-quenching lull, Harry asked, "How are things at Weasley Wheezes?"

Ginny replied, "Swimming. They still won't let me do any mixing. I think now they won't because they're afraid later when I'm an Auror I'll know all the illegal ingredients they're using, as opposed to the few I catch an eyeful of when accidents happen, which is too often. I think at least one of the upstairs walls is just an illusion put up after one especially bad one." She sipped her beer and waited for a group of Muggles to make their way past their table to the bar, bumping into them in the dimness of the pub. "If Diagon Alley ever burns down, you'll know where to start the investigation."

"Such a loyal sister. Makes me glad I have no siblings," Aaron said.

"You can have a few of my brothers. I have extra. How many do you want?"

"Hm," Aaron said thoughtfully. "You can keep the twins, and Percy . . ."

Ginny slumped over her mug. "Figures you'd say that. Ron and Bill work at Gringotts. You're probably familiar with that place," she said with a hint of sarcasm. "You probably have two vaults there, or a dedicated wing."

"Ah, therein lies a tale . . ." Aaron said accompanied by a large swig of his drink. He sighed and traced his finger through the liquid on the table, which reflected ripples from the fake gas lamp light mounted on the wall beside them. "It will probably hopelessly decrease me in your eyes, but . . . my mum keeps me on an allowance."

Ginny laughed. "At least you get an allowance. You'll eventually inherit something, right?"

Aaron tossed his hand. "Presumably."

"Your mum must trust you not to off her."

Aaron stared at her, but said after a sip: "She knows I'm too lazy to do that."

"Well . . . how old is she now, your mum?"

"The question is: how old is great-grandmum."

"Oh dear," Ginny said with a giggle.

"These are the sort of old ladies that stash gold in old hats, charm them invisible, and hang them from trees in a remote forest somewhere by broomstick. Usually after tippling the cooking sherry. Who knows if they even remember where the money is."

Harry said, "No wonder you're working to be gainfully employed."

"Harry, my dear man, an Auror's salary is not 'gainfully employed'. But as a wage-based position is makes everyone my mother luncheons with distinctly uncomfortable. On that point it IS gainful."

On the way home, Aaron insisted that he would escort Harry home. They both escorted Ginny home first, after much arguing on her part that it was unnecessary. The two of them remained standing, framing the Burrow's hearth while they waited for Ginny, who arrived presently. Mr. Weasley sat hunched over the dining table on a stool that had been repaired with what could be a bent car axle. "Well, I guess there was no reason to worry about the late night with you two on duty."

"Good night, dad," Ginny said disgustedly, as she marched to the stairs. "Thanks for thoroughly embarrassing me."

"Good night, sir," Harry said to the accompaniment of Ginny's pounding footsteps on the staircase.

"Hm," Aaron said moments later while pacing around the main hall in Shrewsthorpe. "It's not even that late."

"Mr. Weasley gets an early start," Harry said.

"I didn't mean that." Aaron crossed his arms and looked at Harry. "So, you haven't told me 'hands off', I'm wondering if or when I should expect it."

Harry stopped sorting out which books were Aaron's from the neat piles Winky had made on the end table. "Why would you expect it?" Harry asked.

"Not keeping her in the wings? She seemed previously to be keeping herself in the wings. I thought for a while tonight that she was trying to make you jealous. I don't expect I could reliably out-compete you in this arena. I'm grateful I don't usually have to."

"I am not keeping her in the wings," Harry said. "She's like a younger sister."

"Oh. That's worse," Aaron exclaimed in surprise.

"How so?" Harry said, handing his books to him.

The bedroom door upstairs opened. "Oh, Harry, you're home," Candide said.

"Yeah, turned into a late night," Harry said. "Sorry, are we disturbing you?"

"No, I was waiting up for your guard. Due in a few minutes, isn't she?"

Harry glanced at the clock. "Yes. How was work?"

"Alright, I should get to sleep, though."

"Good idea," Harry gently agreed.

When the door had clicked closed again, Aaron said, "So, as far as you're concerned I can take Little Miss Weasley out."

Harry felt a twinge of something, but determined it was just some residual protective instinct. "Don't hurt her," he blurted.

"Oh, please. You are so old fashioned. What does that mean?"

"It means," Harry said, stepping closer, not quite in a manner of facing the other man down. "Don't promise things you don't intend to deliver on."

"I'm very careful not to do that," Aaron smugly replied.

They stared at each other until Harry said, "That's all you're going to hear from me."

"That just leaves Mr. Weasley." He paced once. "I forgot about Mr. Weasley."

"How could you forget him?" Harry asked. "You work for him."

"He's just that kind of guy," Aaron insisted. "You know . . . forgettable."

- 888 -

Harry did not make it all the way though the week without another nightmare. After a particularly tough day of working on their power during training, Harry again dreamed he was fighting with Rodgers but had no wand to fight back with.

This time Candide woke him. Harry lifted his head from the mound of his pillow and saw Hornisham shuffling out the door to leave them alone. He grudgingly propped his head up on his hand and waited for Candide to say more than his name. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, which made him uncomfortable in the same way Mrs. Weasley did whenever she tried to treat him the same as Ron.

"Do you want me to owl Severus?"

"No," Harry stated with clipped certainty. "It's fine."

She did not move right away, so Harry said, "I'm just dreaming about training. It really isn't something to worry about."

"Training gives you nightmares?" she returned, surprised.

Harry paused and considered that perfectly valid question in the private darkness of the room. The floor creaked outside the door where Hornisham waited. "Er . . . " Harry began, but then wondered if it was something else again that was really bothering him. The other dreams had been his subconscious fear that he was not really home. What could this one mean? It had not gone away like the others.

"Harry?" she prompted, insisting on an answer. "Why would Auror training bother you so. Don't you do well at it?"

"Ummm," Harry sat up, propping his back against the headboard. He tiredly scratched his head and said, "In my dream I never seem to have a wand. Or I can't find my wand. No, I just don't have it," he corrected after thinking it over more. Meaning teased at the edge of his sleep-heavy brain, but he could not grasp it.

Candide stood up. "Well, other than bothering you, that doesn't sound serious. Or should I owl Severus?"

"No, no," Harry insisted. "I just have to figure it out," he said, mind far away.

"Well, if you think talking it out will help, let me know."

"Um, thanks. I'm fine right now." He added, "Good night," as she moved to the door and changed with the guard.

- 888 -

Harry decided to wait for Freelander's paperwork to be finalized before attempting to explain the funding situation to Elizabeth. Without the proper details at his disposal, Harry worried that he would be unable to work around any pride issues that may crop up. He did not see her again until Halloween when she made an appearance at his party, dressed as a disturbingly accurate hag.

Squinting at the dried-fruit-skinned, hairy-chinned figure that Ginny led into the relatively quiet party, Harry asked, "Who are you?"

"Elizabeth . . ." she replied, partly a question.

"Oh," Harry said. "I didn't . . . you look great. Um, well, not great. Well, you know what I mean."

Tonks had sidled over while Harry struggled. "Nice disguise."

Elizabeth, wart hairs bobbing, said, "Thanks. Ginny helped a bit."

"Did she?" Harry said, wondering about that.

At this cue, Ginny, bearing white horse ears and a spiral horn on her forehead, strolled casually away to the drink table. Tonks followed her off with a dubious glance at Harry.

Elizabeth leaned closer, on the side away from where Kali perched on Harry's shoulder, and said, "I didn't feel comfortable coming recognizable. It's too close to home."

"Yeah," Harry said. "It's a disguise worthy of an Auror, really." He tried to hold an enthusiastic tone, but had trouble. "Want a drink? I could use a refill."

"What are you supposed to be?" she asked on the way. "A phoenix?"

"A Griffin. I had to give up on the paws in order to open the door and serve drinks. I still have a lion's tail." He rotated to show off his Weasley Wizard Wheezes Trusty Twitching Tail.

"Ah," she sounded unimpressed.

Harry, figuring if she could feel critical of him, that she must be feeling better, led the way to the snacks. "How are you doing?" he asked on the way.

"Well enough. I miss my piano, but it will be a long time before I can get one of my own or a suitable keyboard, even."

From beside the table, Ginny scanned the room. "Where's your guard?" she asked knowingly.

Harry replied, "Fetching his date."

"Oh," Ginny replied, her chipperness slipping.

Tonks said with a laugh, "Knowing him, it's someone he met on the underground yesterday morning."

This did not ease Ginny's dismay. Harry tried to rub his forehead, forgetting that he wore a beak mask. He straightened his headgear and sought out Hermione, expecting her to be a safe conversation partner.

He found Hermione on the couch, leaning far forward towards Vineet on the opposing couch, hands emerging from her formal robes to be clasped vice-like before her. Harry decided it was past time to check in with her. He sat down beside Vineet when Ron shoved over.

"What are you dressed as?" Harry asked. "No, let me guess: a Hogwarts professor."

Hermione pulled out her wand. "The charm keeps wearing off," she said, dismayed. She tapped her chest and her robes turned purple, making the homemade felt W more obvious. "Supposed to be Wizengamot."

"Ah," Harry said, wondering if he sounded like Elizabeth just a minute ago. While he was sitting, Kali took the opportunity to crawl off his shoulder and around the couch to investigate things.

"You would be a exemplary member of the Wizengamot," Vineet stated with grave seriousness.

Hermione blushed and tried to keep her lips straight. "Maybe someday."

Lavender, wearing ragged men's clothes, came over and sat in Ron's lap. Mrs. Norris blinked at them all from her arms.

"And who are you dressed as?" Harry asked.

"Don't ask," Ron insisted at the same instant Lavender chirped, "Filch."

"Well, you do have his cat," Hermione said, straining to sound neutral.

"Mostly I wanted to drive Ron bongo," she happily explained while petting the ratty cat.

This did not stop Mrs. Norris from hissing at Kali, who raised her wings and backed away, also hissing. Kali backed off Harry onto Vineet's shoulder. Harry voiced a warning when Vineet reached a hand to her and she hissed at the Indian instead.

Vineet said, "She is an bloodheart leech, correct?"

"I'm not certain what that is," Harry said at the same time Hermione replied, "Yes."

Extending his hand within the danger zone, Vineet softly said, "Sometimes you must get hurt to prove something, especially to one with such a name." He didn't even flinch when Kali struck out at his hand. Her nose went to work immediately after, scenting out the blood slipping from two slits across the back of his hand.

Hermione cringed and looked away as the Chimrian began licking the blood away.
Wounds healed, Vineet moved his hand closer and Kali climbed on, nose sniffing fiercely. She made the rounds of his robes before returning to sleep on Harry's shoulder with a satiated flop of her limbs.

Hermione glanced up at someone behind Harry, "Let me guess, Oliver, right?"

Harry turned and found Aaron, also wearing threadbare clothes, face smeared with coal.

"You got it. My favorite costume. Lets me practice my pickpocketing without trouble."

"You, a pickpocket?" Hermione asked, laughing.

Aaron held up a familiar, colorful woven purse. "Isn't this yours?" he asked innocently.

Hermione's face transformed into insulted. "Yes! Give that back."

Aaron gallantly bowed to hand it over. Hermione flipped it open and closed, saying, "I had it charmed too!"

"Not very well, Madame Charms Professor. I would suggest working out something combinatorial rather than simply strongly fixed"

Hermione slipped her purse away in her handbag. "I will; believe me."

Ginny slid quietly over to their group. Harry, thinking to help her out, asked his fellow trainee, "Where's your date?"

"Over there," Aaron said, angling his head to the corner of the room.

All eyes turned that way, where a tall woman with towering blond hair stood talking with Kerry Ann. She wore a glittering, chained bodice under her velvet cloak. Ginny took on a posture of defeat and scratched one tall white ear as though it itched her greatly.

Hermione spoke first. "Who's she dressed as, Bellatrix Lestrange?"

Harry choked down a laugh. "Maybe," Aaron said. "I expect her teeth are not normally so pointy."

Bill propped himself up to see better and said in alarm, "Vespera has a sister?"

This led the surrounding Weasleys to laugh uproariously.

Ginny sent one last glance at the pair of women and headed back to the drink table, downing most of a full mug on the way. Harry extricated himself, handed Kali off to Vineet, and followed her over.

She started when she found him behind her. "Hey," she muttered, refilling her cider.

"Your aren't allowed to get drunk," Harry pointed out, "You're one of my guards."

"You don't need a guard." She put her head down and muttered, "Anymore than Prince Wickem there needs another girlfriend."

Elizabeth slipped closer. "You have your eye on someone?" she asked Ginny.

Ginny glanced at her, but ignored the question. "I should have dressed like you. I see the appeal of not caring to even try." She stroked her short horn and then her pink-hued silver hair. "Kind of a stupid costume, isn't it?" she asked.

"I think it's cute," Harry said. "You did a very nice job on the ears." He pried the refilled cider from her fingers, feeling emboldened by the extra time they had been together that week. "Why don't I drink this one?"

"Yeah," she said and sighed.

Harry glanced behind him to make sure Aaron was out of range. "It's him, really, I've rarely seen the same girl twice."

"That's a bad sign," Elizabeth agreed.

"I could have brought a date, too, but didn't," Ginny grumpily said. The music increased in volume and couples started to dance, including Aaron and his date.

Elizabeth took Ginny by the elbow. "Come on, let's dance. Who cares about having a date?"

They moved off to the open area and Harry returned to the couch. He dropped down beside Hermione, whose robes had faded halfway to black again already.

A few minutes later Tonks leaned over Harry's back, and said, "I've got a call. I'm taking Kerry Ann, so make sure Aaron stays as second guard."

Harry tried hard not to rebel at the notion of needing a minimum of two guards in a crowd.

Hermione answered for him. "We will."

"Speaking of security. Someone should have frisked Blonde Vespera when she came in," Bill said, eyeing the full head of hair bobbing over the other dancers.

Ron shuddered. "You go tell her that. I didn't bring any dragon skin gloves to the party."

Bill said, "If this were the bank, she'd have been directed through the triple-long identification process."

"Do you recognize her?" Hermione asked.

Bill and Ron both shook their heads.

After midnight, guests began to leave in earnest. Harry, Hermione, Ginny, Vineet and Ron occupied the couches, tucking into a second round of snacks. Aaron, leading his starry-eyed date by the hand, said, "Well, we're off."

"You can't be. You have to stay," Harry enjoyed informing him, due to Ginny's deepening frown at their approach.

Stunned, Aaron echoed, "I have to stay?"

Everyone nodded while Vineet explained, "Tonks informed us of this before departing."

"Oh." Aaron extricated his hand. To his date, he said, "Duty calls, I'm afraid."

In a faint accent, his date said, "You are not coming to the . . . next party?"

"No, I can't. I know I agreed we'd split the evening, but I have Ministry duties."

Her cold grey eyes took in the remaining guests. Her eyes contrasted with her strange beauty which radiated a pushy warmth. "I am supposed to bring . . . a guest."

"Yeah, I know, you said, but I can't," Aaron insisted. He took her by the arm. "Here, I'll show you to the Floo." The others watched them navigate across the floor to the dining room.

"Kind of a strange bird," Ron said. "Full security scan."

Bill said, "She didn't pay any attention to Harry. I was keeping an eye on that." He stood and said, "Well, my girl will be home from the evening shift and is going to wonder where I am, but I wanted to stay until the strangers all left."

Harry took a breath, prepared to yell at him, at all of them, for their care. He clenched his teeth instead, reminding himself that someone had tried twice to kill him, and they only wanted to help, just like he would want to help if the situation were reversed. It only helped a little to remind himself of this. The party was emptying out. Harry wished that Belinda had accepted his invitation. He needed to corner and talk to her again, but resisted because of the emotional strain on her last time. He expected that if she wished to talk, she could easily find him, and short of that, pursuing the issue would be cruel.

Hermione stood as well and gave Harry a hug. "I have to get back too. I only got away because Minerva expected that I could report back on how you are doing, Harry. And I have the night shift ahead, patrolling the grounds after the feast."

"Thanks for coming, especially since it made you miss out on your first Halloween Feast at Hogwarts."

"Oh, as a teacher, skipping the feasts is not a sacrifice, believe me." She gave a surreptitious glance back in the direction Vineet sat, reserved as ever even with Kali draped on his knee, tiny eyes peering up at the room.

"Have a good rest of the evening. And be careful," she commanded Harry before heading to the hearth.

"No one gives me any choice but to be," Harry complained.

She stopped to peck him on the cheek. "Poor Harry. Confined to a boring life, caged like one of Hagrid's creatures."

"Um, yeah," Harry replied. "You're sober enough to get home, right?"

- 888 -

"We are going to try something new today: Double-reverse counters," Rodgers said the next Monday. "This is for defending from behind, hopefully needed because you are in thick of things rather than because you are running away." He gave them each an eyeing to reinforce this opinion, ending with Harry. "Potter, come up here."

Their trainer continued, "Most counters will work in double-reverse, but for the strongest ones you are often relying on the appearance of the spell to control it, even if you don't realize it. So, to cast it blind requires some practice. Let's start with a Titan since that one is just cast with the wand pointing backward. Turn around."

Harry faced the wall, feeling vaguely uneasy about having his back to Rodgers.

"Point your wand back at me."

Harry hooked his wand in his fingers and hung his hand over his right shoulder.

"Now I'm going to show you why that's not right. Flibbergibbit!"

Harry felt the curse, cast a block, but the tendrils of the spell took out his feet, and he hit the floor.

As Harry picked himself up on shock-stunned knees, Rodgers commented, "For someone who lives under the same roof as a Death Eater, I'd have expected you to have more experience with getting hit from behind."

Harry did not immediately have a response to that implied insult to his guardian. Tridant tittered from the back of the room. Harry remained facing his trainer, unable to let the comment slide. "I'll thank you to not get too personal, sir," he said.

Rodgers slapped his wand against his leg in annoyance. "Oh, come now, Potter. I'm trying to make you angry so you put a little bit more into those counters of yours. You treated it as routine. Turn around again."

Biting down on more he wished to say, Harry turned around, wand over his shoulder, despite his face growing hot.

Rodgers said, "His former colleagues were put away long ago. If he couldn't handle the hit to his reputation, he shouldn't have kept such poor company."

Harry hit the floor again but was jarred less this time. It reminded him too much of endless curses from Ginny in the afternoons that he also could not block because he was insisting it could be done without a wand.

"Potter, were you listening to the explanation at all? Sit down and watch for a few rounds, eh?"

Harry, stretching his back, slumped in his chair and watched Kerry Ann tackle a reversed Titan and begin the shifted phase spelling needed on a reversed chrysanthemum, this time with her wand forward. While this went on, a thought vibrated in Harry's head, trying to to coalesce into something substantial. As Aaron changed places with Kerry Ann, Harry began to feel worry, the kind that made his heart feel like clay. Snape's voice echoed in his memory with a taint of dread, I don't have much power, Potter. Especially now.

Harry breathed in and out, trying not to let panicked concern overtake his thoughts when he could be called up in a moment to practice something he was having trouble learning. But he could not shake his realization that he had left the other-dimension Snape to manage by himself with no patron to defend him. At the time, that had been expedient and Harry had not thought twice about it until now. He gathered his wits and repeatedly squashed his worry while Aaron got extra help.

Harry got a break from this new concern the next day when something positive distracted him. Freelander owled at the Ministry, requesting that Harry visit the next afternoon to sign some paperwork with the solicitors present. Harry, to spare both his patron and his fellow from another visit, thought it best to ask Ginny to accompany him. Vineet followed Harry home to wait for her to arrive for their usual Wednesday practice.

Winky appeared instantly with tea and little chocolate cakes. Vineet silently plucked two from the tray and sat on the couch with them balanced on the palm of his right hand. He stared blankly beyond the wall and the flickering hearth.

"Maybe you should be my guard more often," Harry said, thinking they did not talk nearly enough and that it was clearly not for the best that Vineet continued to spend his evenings alone.

"I would be honored," Vineet said.

"Well, don't go that far . . ."

Ginny arrived and Harry saw his fellow trainee off with the promise to see to it that he be assigned as Harry's guard that weekend.

"I'm worried about him," Harry said to Ginny as they walked up the gravel drive between the ostentatious gates of the Freelander estate. "He's too quiet and I can't tell what he's thinking." Harry walked with his hands in his pockets, head down and thoughtful. Ginny craned her neck forward and back to better see through the gaps in the high fence.

"Sorry, I'm listening . . . Merlin's molars this is one hell of a place."

"What? Oh, yeah."

Ginny's exclamations of astonishment only increased as they were led through room after room laden with elegantly curved, painted wood framing furniture and paintings. She spoke variations on: "This is someone's house? Jeepers. This place is unreal." all the way through the house.

The butler was a smart man, before the last door, he took hold of the twin handles and announced, "This is the meeting room."

Ginny fell quiet and followed Harry inside where a group gathered around a broad but dainty-legged white desk sporting excessive baroque flourishes.

"Mister Potter, please come in." Freelander gestured at the others encircling the desk and said, "This is Gottfried, Polstar, and Contango. I have retained them to oversee the fund's formation. Ah, and you have a new guard today, one much easier on the eyes."

Harry introduced Ginny, who kept herself back from the desk, hands clasped formally behind her back. The solicitors, two men and a woman in identical Muggle suits, bowed or held a hand out. The men eyed Harry with curiosity. The man introduced as Gottfried said, "A pleasure to finally meet you. My grandmum was a witch but that was the end of the line for our family. She talked endlessly about Dumbledore and Grindelwald when we were young." He sounded wistful, which matched his child-like, but balding appearance.

"It's not necessarily the end of the line," Harry said. "Some families skip three or four generations."

"I've tried to tell him that," Freelander said.

Gottfried appeared ambivalent to thoughts of magical offspring. "We'll see, I guess."

Freelander moved along with business, leading Harry on a tour through a stack of thick parchments that spelled out minute details of how funds would be allocated and how often and under what circumstances they could be withheld.

"For the time being, I think you can decide yourself who best to assign the fellowship to." Freelander held up a parchment. "But this lays out the procedure for the formation of a committee to advise on appropriate recipients."

Harry signed that one first since he understood it and it did not take effect right away. The next one required more time. While he decoded the mile-long strings of clauses, Freelander engaged Ginny in conversation.

"So, Weasley, I recall that name from somewhere."

"There are quite a few of us," Ginny admitted. "My brothers run a shop on Diagon Alley. So you may have seen the name there."

"I'm afraid I don't get down there nearly as often as I used to. I have to admit, you look a bit delicate for a magical guard, young lady, to my old eyes, that is."

With a bright cuteness that made a startled Harry lower the densely arcane legal document he held, Ginny replied, "I'm frequently underestimated. It's one of my best advantages. But if you'd like a résumé, I'll gladly provide one."

Harry feared that Freelander may find this out of line and was surprised when the man smiled, crossed his arms and indulged her by saying, "Go ahead; I am curious."

Harry tried to return to the dry text wallpapering the long sheet before him while Ginny rocked up on her toes and said, "I finished seven O.W.L.s and five N.E.W.T.s. I've fought Death Eaters and Voldemort alongside Harry." She stopped at the exclamations of disbelief and one condescending chuckle from the oldest solicitor.

"No, that's true," Harry said while signing the parchment before him without finishing it beyond a quick glance because the long words were all running together and seemed to repeat just to make the document look longer.

Ginny went on, "I rescued Harry from Merton. I won the first Demise of Voldemort Day Dueling competition."

When she wound down, Harry added, "She passed half the Auror's testing with flying colors."

Ginny fidgeted by rocking up higher on her toes. "That too. Just have to pass the other half now."

"Well, good to know you are on the case," Freelander said, sounding the chummiest Harry had ever heard him.

Harry continued through the documents, asking a few questions, mostly to keep up the appearance that he understood everything he was signing. Ginny filled the time by asking about the plentiful wizard paintings surrounding them, which Freelander, shuffled over to discuss. They made their way around the room, Freelander growing more animated as they went.

While the solicitors packed their things into aromatic leather cases and shook hands all around before departing, Freelander insisted Harry and Ginny remain for dinner. Harry may have resisted the invitation if Ginny had not lit up like a candle at it.

Ginny's eyes glowed as she gazed around the grand dining room where the long, long table barely made an impact on the floor space. The three of them crowded one end of the table and the servants ferried one silver-covered dish after another from far away in the middle of it.

"Beatrice is at her father's this evening," Freelander explained of his wife when Harry asked. "When I married her five years ago, she was not occupied at all. That's why I married her, but she runs three foundations of her own now as well as caring for her father." Sounding wry, he said, "I seem to be last in line on her schedule."

"Maybe you should try polygamy," Harry said without much forethought. Ginny coughed on her soup and started laughing until she managed to stifle it with a napkin.

"Sorry," she said shyly. "Where'd that come from?" she demanded quietly.

"Oh, Vineet. He said there are different laws in India for different groups, and some wizards there still practice it."

Ginny stared at him and Harry wondered if she wished she knew some Legilimency. "Do I want to know what this is in reference to?"

"Probably not," Harry replied. With a glance at their thoughtful host, he said, "Maybe we should find a better topic." He leaned back as his bowl was exchanged for yet another plate.

"No, young man, that's all right. Ten years ago, I'd have been appalled, but I've grown old enough now to find myself uncaring what anyone else wishes to do with themselves."

"As long as witches get polyandry too," Ginny said slyly. "I'd be all for it."

One course later, she asked, "So, your children have moved on?"

Harry gave a warning shake of his head, but Freelander raised his glass to Harry in a kind of toast, saying, "We'll see if they've all moved on."

Harry hurriedly clinked his glass to his host's, confused. He should not have done it, but he was concerned his asking for help may have raised the man's expectations for something Harry did not intend to provide. What he read in Freelander's eyes confused him more. He fell silent and a little panicked through the rest of the meal, which had only two more courses, and passed quickly once conversation lagged.

On the way down the drive late that evening, Ginny sleepily hooked her arm through Harry's and said, "I love being your guard. That was a wonderful dinner." When Harry did not find a comment, she said, "You have an elf and eat like that all the time, I guess."

"Not quite like that. We never have oyster caviar au gratin."

"Pureed on toast points," Ginny added brightly.

Harry laughed.

Ginny added with a grand sigh, "Man, what a way to live."

The lamps on the gate flickered on as they approached it. In the still air, their voices sounded loud. "It could have been mine," Harry said.

"You're joking," Ginny said, the grip on his arm growing almost painful.

"He wanted to adopt me."

"OH. Well, that explains his odd comment."

"It sort of explains his odd comment," Harry said, voice far away.

"What's that mean?"

"I have to think on it," Harry said, not wanting to speak ill of his patron.

Harry put aside his thoughts of Freelander that evening to worry again about the other dimension Snape. It was a dreading, semi-helpless worry, like the kind he had been a constant companion as a child and he did not like it rearing up again.

To distract himself, he went to see Elizabeth, to whom he had paperwork and good news to deliver. Ginny agreed easily to follow him on this task while Hornisham waited at home, since the nearly retired witch could not even remotely approach passing for Muggle.

Elizabeth came to the door, looking tired. Her roommate was installed on the couch, crisps in hand, watching some Muggle program.

"Ah, the boyfriend," Diane said coyly. Elizabeth cringed. And when Ginny stepped in, Diane said, "Oh, never mind."

"Sorry to call so late," Harry said, ignoring the comments. "But I wanted to bring you these things." With a happy anticipation at her reaction, he handed over the scrolls outlining the fellowship. Ginny stepped back to lean on the wall, tactfully out of the way.

Harry went on, "I have a patron, whom I've never asked anything of. He formed a fund for a fellowship for, uh, people like you to study at university." Very quietly, he added, "Witches and wizards, you know." Then back in a normal voice: "I get to dole it out to whomever I want."

She looked up from the densely printed parchments with round-eyed surprise. "Are you saying it's for me?"

Harry, feeling unusually nervous, jerked one hand out of his back pocket to gesture at what she held. "It's a fellowship for your studies."

She needed a moment to recover and her eyes went wet as she did. "Harry, that's so sweet of you."

Diane approached from the couch and took the parchments. "What odd paper."

Biting her lip, Elizabeth took them back. "I get to read them first," she said. But she did not open them. Instead, she gave Harry a firm hug. "Thanks. I don't know what to say."

"It's all right. I feel kind of responsible."

She pushed him away to arm's length. "You what?" she asked critically.

Harry held back his smile at her return to normal. "Well, I thought that if I hadn't, I don't know, inspired you to do more, er, things your dad disapproved of . . ."

"Harry," she said in a lecturing tone. "I was so overdue to get away from home. My only regret is none of it happened sooner." She unrolled the parchments. "Thanks. God, I don't know what to say."

"It's not his money," Diane pointed out.

"She's right," Harry said.

"And Freelander has plenty," Ginny tossed in.

"Yeah, but it was your doing," Elizabeth clarified. She drooped slightly. "I was in such a state yesterday, and now this . . ."

She sounded teary-eyed, and Harry wanted to hug her again, perhaps more than he really should, so he said, "I have training in the morning; I should go."

"Stop by anytime," Diane said with a knowing wink as she showed them out.

Candide was sitting at the table with Hornisham when they returned. Ginny headed off and Harry took a seat.

"Late evening," Candide observed, which Harry interpreted as her politely asking where he had been. She had been doing that more lately, which Harry suspected was on Snape's orders.

"I had some errands. To Freelander's, where he insisted on dinner, and then to Elizabeth's flat. I wanted to give her the fellowship papers right away."

"I bet she was happy," Candide said.

"Yeah," Harry said, remembering wanting to hold her. He felt vaguely floaty thinking about it.

"What's wrong?" Candide asked.

Harry glanced at his guard, knitting rhythmically as always. He maybe could use some advice. "Can we talk alone?" he asked, and Hornisham, with a formal wave, shuffled out.

Harry hesitated, fearing voicing something that might make it harder to ignore. "Nothing's wrong exactly."

"You looked like something was wrong."

"I do have a lot on my mind." He fell silent and listened to the fire licking at the wood in the hearth. "Well, maybe you can answer this. How bad is it if you feel something for someone you're not supposed to be feeling anything for?"

"Depends on if you let it get out of hand," Candide said. She sounded about how Harry expected Snape would answering that question.

"Well, but, I'm not letting it do anything. It's just happening." He kept the anger he felt out of his voice since it had nothing to do with her.

"Haven't you ever been in love?"

"Er, I don't know," Harry said, sounding difficult. "Maybe."

"Are you in love with Tonks?" She waved one of the bottles from the wall and poured Harry a sip of sherry.

"I like Tonks a lot," Harry countered, flipping the glass in his fingers with out drinking from it.

"I didn't imply that you didn't. There are two different things at work here."

"You sound like Severus. All analysis. No feelings."

She held back a smile. "You don't sound like you are ready to discuss this. Why don't we do it a month from now when you are."

"What do you think is going to happen between now and then?" Harry asked.

She had returned to the newspaper, but put it down again to say, "Do you feel closer to Tonks now than you did a month ago?"

"No," Harry admitted, feeling adrift.

"Well, then-"

Harry cut her off, defensive. "But I'm not allowed to tell her anything. No wonder she's so suspicious." Harry stopped and stood up. He swallowed the sip of sherry and sighed. "Not a surprise then, is it. Any of it."

"You mean that she doesn't trust you and you are no closer?" At Harry's nod, she said, "Doesn't sound like a surprise to me."

"I should tell her," Harry said.

"You should talk to Severus before you do."

Harry scratched his neck. "He doesn't understand."

"Oh, he does. But he wants to protect you more than he wants to make your love life work out."

Harry stalked off to bed, feeling grumpy.

Training the next day only reinforced Harry's worries about the Snape he left behind with no protection. Worse yet, he remembered clearly that he himself had demanded that Fudge arrest all the Death Eaters. Maybe he should not have done that. When he next woke in the middle of a dream of trying to fight without a wand, it felt like a hammer pounding the idea that something must be done firmly into his skull.

Harry rolled over in bed, determined to figure out a way to return and check on Snape, and the dream did not wake him again.

During field work with Rodgers on Friday afternoon, they were called to Diagon Alley for a fire at Eeylops Emporium. The Ministry swarmed in mass numbers onto the scene and put out the fire quickly, rescued the soot-dusted owls, as well as masked the smoke as it rose up into Muggle London.

"Send someone to liaison with the Muggles," Mr. Weasley said to Rodgers. "Just in case. In broad daylight like this, it won't go missed." And indeed, Muggle sirens could be heard, echoing over the buildings.

"Find the owner," Mr. Weasley ordered. "I want to talk to him, at the Ministry. Get an Auror posted at his house and bring him in."

Things were still chaotic when Harry was sent home, to his dismay, right before the shop owner was questioned. Harry had been plotting while he trailed his trainer through the confusion, commands and patrol, and felt calm sitting at home on the couch, now that he had a plan of action for the other Snape. He slept well that night for the first time in a long while.

Saturday, while Vineet was there for guard duty and after Candide had departed for work, Harry said, "I have a proposition for you."

Harry stared at Vineet's grim countenance and plowed on, "I have something I need to do that I don't want anyone to know about and you should go see Hermione. So, this is my idea: I'll do my thing and you do yours and we'll meet back here in four hours."

Vineet replied, "That would not be very dutiful of me, leaving you."

"I'm going to be far out of range of whomever is trying to kill me, believe me."

Vineet stared at him. He wavered visibly.

"Vishnu, at least go and talk to Hermione. She's as unhappy as you are. Half her last letter was spent asking about you." Harry could remember being stunned by Hermione's admission of being in love with a married man, but that was when his marriage was working out. It mattered less now than he would have previously imagined it could. In a more just reality they would be free to be with each other. And Hermione's charms would hold for days instead of minutes. "At least talk to her."

"And when I return and you do not, what shall I tell your adoptive father, whom I have no interest in offending?"

He had him; Harry could tell. He was a beaten man and Harry was pained to witness it. Something had to change, and he trusted Hermione to handle his fellow with her considerate care, whatever the result of his visiting. "Tell him I've gone to Latvia. He'll know what that means. But don't say anything if I'm back here on schedule."

Vineet thought for a minute but then stood and bowed. "I wish to trust that you know what you are doing. And if I am going to break with rules and traditions I feel less obligation to stick with others. But do, please, be back here when you say. I will be unforgiving with myself later, I am certain, even though I am uncaring right now."

"I'll be back here," Harry assured him. "Go and get yourself straightened out." He called out to Vineet before he could make it to the Floo in the dining room. "Oh, don't tell Hermione you left your guard duty. She'd be more dangerous than Severus upon learning that."

Vineet bowed, and stepped through the door. A moment later the rush of the Floo network sounded and Harry went into motion. Up in his room he used the strongest warming charm he could on his hearth stone, he repeated it until the floor creaked as it expanded. He was confident that it would remain warm for the necessary time. He then put out the fire, so he had more space, knowing that if he put it out Winky would not re-kindle it until he or Snape re-lit it.

Harry took a deep breath. He could not resist what he was planning to do. Once he had fixed his mind on this path, he would go mad with ongoing worry if he tried to drop it again. He would end up like Vineet, hopeless at being unable to take action. He closed his eyes and dropped through the floor.

- 888 -

Harry arrived in the Hogwart's dungeon and awoke before a fire burning low in the empty Potions classroom. By the time he could move, he ached everywhere from the cold. Initially, the best he could manage was to roll over to warm his other side, and he only really got moving when he smelled what must be his robes smoldering.

With a creak of his spine and a groan Harry rolled to sit up and slapped at his robes where smoke twined off them. Part of him imagined that at least if he caught fire, he would be warm again, but his better sense prevailed . . . just barely. With ungainly movements, he rose to his feet and swayed before stumbling to the door. He checked the corridor and slipped down to Snape's office, but the door was barred with Ministry Department of Law Enforcement Tape. Harry blinked at this with dread blossoming in his chest strongly enough to paralyze him while he adjusted to the notion. He did not move until voices approached. He slipped into the Dark Plane and stood thinking. He could seek out McGonagall for information, but he wanted to avoid the watchful paintings in her tower. He slipped into Hogsmeade instead.

In the alley beside the Hogs Head, Harry applied a disguise, the best he could do quickly with no mirror and given that he could not quite straighten his cold-stiff spine. He applied a long white beard and hair and aged his face, essentially putting on the Dumbledore disguise he had used the previous Halloween. He stroked his face and, deciding it felt all right, headed around to the door of the seedy wizard pub to see what he could learn about recent events here.

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.

As he pulled out a chair, nearly unbalancing himself, a smattering of conversation resumed, but before he could sit, Harry had to reach for his wand as his skin prickled with a curse warning. Harry put up a Modulated Block to avoid sending the reflected curse around the room. It had only been a Tripping Curse, but it raised Harry's ire. He disarmed the oversized, hooded man, which brought the man to his drunken feet.

The room's conversations stopped again with a special sound-absorbing kind of silence. Harry tauntingly held out the man's gummy wand with his fingertips as one might a dead rodent. "That was foolish," Harry said, still trying to sound old. The man tossed off his hood, revealing Goyle, Harry's old schoolmate. He had grown a bit in all dimensions, but mostly around the middle. His robes had split at the sides to make room. Harry threw his wand at him and Goyle had to struggle to bend far enough to pick it up.

"Do that again, I'll use it for kindling rather than returning it," Harry snapped.

The conversations resumed immediately this time, attention pointedly redirecting off him. Harry sat down and sorted through the papers, requiring little time to find what he needed because the papers had been left refolded and flattened to the articles most of interest to the locals. A sequence of grim headlines and pictures showed Snape being investigated, then dragged out of the castle. Harry squinted at the photograph of his actual arrest but in the poor pub light could not see if anyone had come to his defense.

During more flipping through the stack for the most recent issues, Harry learned that Snape's trial was in five days and he was being held in the Ministry dungeon. A sidebar to this article described overdue Ministry plans to finally rebuild Azkaban after so many years of simply cursing those found guilty of minor infractions so they lost the use of a limb for a year, or simply executing those found guilty of anything serious. The sharp reduction in the wizarding population brought about by this policy was growing worrisome, according to the author of the article.

Harry stacked the papers back together, partly to hide what he had been looking at, partly to stall while plotting. He tossed back the remainder of his flat butterbeer and Disapparated away.

Author's Notes: Yes, cruel cut-point, but on the upside, most of 17 is written as a result.

Next: Chapter 17

Wary, glancing at the door repeatedly from his ungainly position, Rodgers said, "You think that's the only way to initiate an alarm?"

"It'll buy time." Harry said easily, unperturbed. "Funny, regulations 721 through 724 of the Code for Handling Prisoners states that Magical Suppression Barriers shall not be removed from the Ministry Holding Area except in cases of repair or difficult prisoner movement." Harry waved his wand at Rodgers as though taking him to task. "It's your own damn fault I can do that."

Rodgers blinked at him, caught completely off-guard by having rules quoted at him. He recovered his bluster. "You don't stand a chance, Potter. . . or whoever you are."

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