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Chapter 18 — Secrets Small and Large

Harry was glad when Candide arrived home at a more normal hour and Hornisham decided to leave them alone and knit in the main hall. Harry wanted Candide's advice. She put her things away and joined him at the table, prompting dinner to sparkle in.

"You're home earlier," Harry said to open the conversation.

"Severus insisted I be."

"Hm," Harry said, forking himself pasta. "Because of me or because of you?"

She smiled faintly. "Probably both, but the excuse was you."

"I didn't get you into trouble did I?" Harry asked, prepared to fire off a sharp owl if she said 'yes'.

"No, more a frustrated exchange about none of us having any time to pay attention to any of the rest of us."

"Hm," Harry murmured, concentrating on eating because he was hungry. The fire, burning higher in the evenings due to the cooling weather, shifted, sending cinders onto the hearthstone.

Once he was no longer famished, Harry quietly said, "I could use some advice, if you can keep a secret."

"I can keep a secret, Harry." She wiped her hand and raised a finger. "Unless it conflicts with one of the house rules."

"Our house has official rules?"

"It has a rule at the moment that you are grounded." She peered at her plate. "It probably has others. But I trust you will not shake your guard again."

"I don't know about that," Harry said.

She glared at him in surprise, then laughed lightly. "At least you're honest."

"Honesty is my trouble at the moment. I have a problem with a friend and I don't know what to tell him."

"Well, run it by me. I can keep secrets; it's part of my job to."

"Well, I suspect something about this friend that he really should know and . . ."

"You suspect or you know? There's a world of difference if the issue is a sticky one."

Harry thought about that as they ate. Filling up fast, Candide pushed her plate away, saying, "I'll get a snack later. Can't eat so much at a time this week," she said, patting her rounding belly.

Dinner faded away and herbal tea arrived in Candide's place setting. "Want some?" she asked. Harry shook his head as he laid another log on the fire and brushed his hands off before resuming his seat. He said. "I guess I only strongly suspect this thing about this friend." He shook his head and gave up on trying to be secretive. "Well, let me run it by you. My friend Aaron . . . see, he's from this wealthy family, and . . . well, his father's dead, but . . . erm, I suspect his father is actually someone else."

Candide shook her head. "Back up a bit. What makes you suspect this?"

"I did Legilimency on Lord Freelander when he said something that made me think I'd led him on about something. But I was wrong. See, I thought he may be referring to me because he wanted to adopt me, but I'm pretty sure I saw in his mind that he was referring to Aaron."

Candide shook her head rapidly again. "Okay, from dealing with Severus, I've come to the conclusion that not knowing what others really think is a critical factor in keeping society functioning smoothly. But that aside for the moment . . ." She faded out and propped her chin on her hand to think. "So, Freelander thinks he's Aaron's father, you are saying? He may be wrong."

Harry tapped his fingers beside his fork. "I hadn't thought of that."

She lined her tea bag, sugar jar, and spoon up neatly beside her cup as she talked, as though adding them up. "But, if he even suspects it, then the odds are, well, let's say better than even, probably. Do they look alike?"

Harry shrugged. "I suppose. They don't not look alike. Freelander's a little grey and getting up in years, so it's harder to tell than if he were younger. But there are other things. He knew much too much about Aaron's past. See, Aaron was my guard the other day when I went to visit and Freelander was really hard on him, and then really surprised when he found out he was an Auror apprentice." Harry fell thoughtful. "It's like he was trying to get over his own disappointment or something."

"Hm," she muttered meaningfully. "That does support your suspicion. So the question is: what to tell your friend."

Harry turned pained eyes on her. "Yeah. I'm really having a real tough time with this. I know he thinks a lot of his father. Well, the person he was raised by. Even if I was certain, I don't know what I'd say."

"You could stay out of it."

"That doesn't seem right either." Harry sighed. "Freelander will eventually decide something, I suppose, but Aaron's my friend and I feel like I should be open with what I suspect."

"That's a tough one, Harry. I'm not sure I have a clear suggestion for you. Why don't you try feeling Aaron out on the topic, just to get a sense of how he's going to react to the news."

Harry nodded. "That's a good idea. I'll do that. Maybe I can get him assigned as guard tomorrow."

- 888 -

The next day, Aaron followed Harry home at Harry's request.

"Is Ginny coming today?" Aaron asked.

"No, just Wednesday this week, since I am claiming her as an assigned guard and that's a stretch. Why?"

Aaron shrugged. "No reason."

"How'd your date go with her on Sunday?" Harry asked, now wondering, when before he felt he should stay out of it.

"It was fine. It was nice."

"Is that a bad thing?" Harry asked, trying to read his tone and vaguely stiff body language.

"No, of course that's not a bad thing," he said, mood shifting. "She's perhaps too serious for me, but we have another date. Come on, let's get into the books shall we? I somehow haven't managed to since the last time we studied together."

They settled into the library over tea and biscuits, Harry happy to have a guard who did not feel like one. Aaron frequently stood to stretch, stopping by the window as he did so. Harry heard his pet rattling her cage upstairs and waved an Alohomora in that direction to let her come down, which she did.

"Your purple flying rat," Aaron said, retaking his seat

"Hey," Harry said, feigning insult while stroking Kali's head. "She's been good to me. She helped rescue Severus among other things."

Aaron sighed, and changed books. "I can't read more than three pages of one at a time," he explained.

Harry laughed. "Want me to read aloud?"

Aaron sat straight to peer over the rim of Harry's book. "No. I'm too far behind you." He jerked his head to stare out the darkening window, appeared to consider standing again, but sat back with his book instead.

"What is it?" Harry asked,

"I don't want to sound paranoid, but lately I feel like I'm being watched."

Harry pulled his wand out and ran the spell to check the perimeter of the house. It flared blue with a sputter of red at the end.

"Huh," Harry uttered. "No, don't move," he said to Aaron when his friend put his hands on the chair arms as if to rise. Harry prodded his pet and stared into her eyes. "Out the chimney with you; I don't want to open a window and give anything away."

Kali flew off when released. Harry closed his eyes and tracked her flight up the blackened, gritty flue. Near the top, she pulled her wings in and crawled easily over the rough tile inside. Aaron did not speak while Harry concentrated.

From her perch upon the spindly chimney, Kali peered down around herself over the slate roof and the dark fields behind. A low light beside the garden wall caught her attention. She flapped down and around it. It turned out to be a dark cloaked figure, hunched over a faint fairy light. Kali circled again, diving low, attracting no attention from the target.

For a moment, Harry was back in the library with his hands over his eyes. He felt for the breeze in his wings and was back circling the garden as though a giant rubber band had snapped him back. The figure behind the wall was bent over a notebook and holding an extendable eyeball. Harry wondered at that, since he did not believe the twins sold them.

Kali flapped by too close, indicated by the figure crouching lower and covering the notebook with its cape. The figure did not glance up, to Harry's dismay. Instead, it Apparated away.

"What is it?" Aaron asked, because Harry had made a noise of defeat.

"He or she got away. Someone was spying on us though."

Aaron went to the window and stood there with his arms crossed.

Harry said, "Let's add some traps outside and then move to the main hall where the windows face the road."

"Sounds good," Aaron said.

The two of them, cloaked and gloved, slogged through the dead brush around the property and a corner of the neighbor's property, leaving behind trapping spells that grew more elaborately clever as they went. Harry wanted to say something to Aaron, but had not worked out exactly what. His suspicion that this watcher had something to do with Freelander kept him from calling in others from the Auror's office.

Back inside, Harry threw a few choice logs on the hall fire and they settled in there on the couches. Harry arranged his thoughts and asked his friend, "So, your dad wasn't around much when you were young, you said."

Aaron answered without pulling his nose out of his book. "No. He was off, frequently. He ran a wizard architectural firm for a while, then a consultancy. Most of his clients were on the continent where the laws about expanding wizard property are more liberal." Before Harry could compose a followup question, Aaron volunteered, "You know, he didn't even have to work and for a while, he lost money, but in the end, ended up making quite a bit. But what was the point? He was never home." A whiff of bitterness floated out at the end of this.

"Your mum didn't mind him going off?"

"She said he wouldn't be happy if he didn't get to be his own person, make his own way. So, I decided I should get to be my own person too."

"Do you miss him?" Harry asked, and felt a twinge as he did so, like he had crawled too far out on a flimsy tree limb.

"Yeah. Don't you miss your dad?"

"I don't remember him," Harry said, voice drifting away.

"That's a shame," Aaron said, sounding pained. "I don't think I'd know who I was if I hadn't known my dad at all."

Harry dropped the topic.

Aaron begged off from dinner when Harry's evening guard arrived. After a quiet meal across from Candide, who spent it perusing files, Harry penned a letter to Snape asking permission to come speak with him. Hedwig returned promptly and Harry opened the small missive to find a sharply worded reply saying that he mostly certainly could come to speak with him and that asking was an unnecessary delay if he needed help with something. The pen strokes of the letter spoke of frustration even more than the words. Harry folded the message away in his pocket and collected Hornisham to take the Floo into Hogsmeade, feeling like he couldn't do things right all of a sudden.

Harry insisted that Candide follow along, even after she gave him a disbelieving, tired glare at the suggestion. She stood awkwardly while patting her abdomen, and accepted her cloak.

"Sorry," Harry said. "But I can't leave you here alone tonight. Someone was watching the house earlier."

Hornisham perked up at this. "Next time I can bring one of my pets to patrol."

"Er, we added some spells. I doubt they'll be back. But certainly, as long as it's something small and doesn't breath fire."

Hornisham's lips curled as she nodded. "Yeah, yeah, I know just the pet. Mathilda could use some getting out. She gets cranky and the Ministry said she had to stay in a cage 'cept for official business."

"And what sort of creature is Mathilda?" Candide asked factually.

"Monstrous Centipede," Hornisham proudly announced. "The only registered one in the Isles."

"She doesn't mind the cold?" Harry asked, sort of thinking they should avoid Mathilda.

"Ach. I knitted her a woolly sweater," she replied, patting the sack of knitting hitched over her shoulder. "Took me over a year to do it. Had to knit all the hundred sleeves out of single hairs of wool."

"We'll see if we need her," Harry said. "I think for now we're all right. By the way, have you met Hagrid, the Hogwarts gamekeeper?"

"I remember him from school and his name come up in the files often enough, but I haven't been formally introduced, I don't believe."

"Well," Harry brightly said, while reaching for the Floo powder, "why don't I leave you two with him while I talk to Severus. I have this strange feeling you two are going to hit it off." He and Candide shared faint smiles.

- 888 -

Snape, with a sharp wave, sent off the student doing detention and gestured at the visitor's chair. The student, a tall, slope-shouldered Slytherin, lumbered off, head down, appearing to attempt to slink off without Harry's notice.

The door closed and Harry skipped sitting. "So, someone was watching the house tonight," he said. Bringing Snape's hooded eyes to alert. "I left Candide at Hagrid's hut with my guard, don't worry."

"You left Candide with Hagrid and I'm not to worry?" Snape stated dryly as he came around the desk to lean his hip on the front of it.

"Oh, come on. Hagrid is harmless."

"Hagrid tries to be harmless. He rarely succeeds. But you were saying . . . ?"

"So, I think Freelander is spying on Aaron . . ."

Snape sounded hard still. "Whatever for?"

"Because he thinks he's Aaron's biological father; I'm fairly certain."

Snape pondered that. "That's interesting. So, why are you here, then? Ask him yourself."

"Next week, I can do that," Harry pointed out. "It didn't feel like a topic one should send by owl."

Snape straightened the inkwells at his side. "So, you are asking for permission to go speak with him?"

"I was hoping I could do that," Harry said.

"It would defeat the purpose of grounding you to grant exceptions." They stared at each other as the lamp on the desk fluttered, sending oil smoke into the air. "What were you doing when you shook your guard? If you tell me I may reduce the time of your punishment."

"If I tell you; you'll make it a month," Harry said.

Snape turned away and returned to the chair behind the desk. "That illuminates the topic nicely, actually," he said with a hiss.

"Does it?" Harry said.

"You may speak with Freelander on Friday evening. I will escort you there myself," Snape stated. "Was that it?"

He sounded so unyielding that Harry felt a disorienting wave of doubt about where he was. Swallowing, he said, "There is something else." He tried to feel hurt instead of uncertain, but it was a hard battle. "I want to tell Tonks the truth about what I can do."

"I cannot stop you from doing so; I can only strongly advise against it."

"She doesn't trust me," Harry complained.

Snape crossed his arms and said, "And when telling her does not solve that . . . what then?"

Harry honestly considered that despite wanting to rebel. It was possible that Tonks wasn't good at trusting and he was just grasping. But he had to try. "I don't know what then," he admitted.

Silence fell, ruled by the wind rattling at a loose windowpane. Harry concluded with, "That's all I wanted to talk to you about."

With a warmer tone, Snape said, "Thank you for the warning . . . warnings. Is Candide working less?"

"Yes," Harry said. "She's mostly home at an earlier hour now."

"Good." They considered each other during another awkward pause. Snape said, "I'll be home for longer this weekend, if I can manage it."

"I'll see you then," Harry said automatically, and turned for the door.

He was brought up short before he could grab the handle by Snape saying, "Do take care," in a tone that meant it.

Harry turned back, but kept his head down. Snape went on, "Despite someone plotting to do you harm, I am convinced you remain your own worst enemy. And I am relieved that whatever you were doing, you are safely through it."

"I am," Harry agreed. Thinking more, he said, "But if it isn't Freelander spying on Aaron or the house, shouldn't we know that sooner?"

"Owl him regarding it."

"Not a chance," Harry replied. "I wouldn't know where to start. And besides, I'll need Legilimency to figure it out if he doesn't want to answer."

A brow went up. "Well, at least you have learned that much."

- 888 -

The next day, Harry, after three peeks into the office, finally caught Tonks between calls.

"Can I see you this afternoon?" Harry asked her, thinking he could sneak in a visit before going home.

She glanced up from the report she was scratching out. "Yeah. I promised myself for once to get home at a reasonable hour. I can take over from your guard after dinner, if you want to drop by."

Harry bit his lips. He could use the excuse that he had to fetch her for a guard. Harry noticed that Shacklebolt's quill had stopped moving, indicating he was listening in. The notion that Snape may have informed the Order of his grounding nearly made him laugh aloud. Perhaps it was just the ongoing dating issue.

"Okay, I'll pick you up as a guard then. I have some things I really need to talk to you about," Harry said.

She gave him a fretful glance at that, but when he smiled faintly it went away.

"Give me until seven, and I'll be home."

Aaron followed Harry home, and when Ginny arrived, he stood to take her cloak with a butlerish aplomb. Her face mottled nearly maroon through the process and she took a seat across from Harry without really looking at him, leading him to wonder what he was missing.

She stood back up again quickly, saying, "Let's drill, I have to get home for dinner."

Harry held off on using any Legilimency on her, feeling it to be highly unfair. Wand in his pocket, Harry took up a spot across from her and had to take a step back when her wind curse buffeted him.

"Easy there," he said, tugging his robes straight from them wanting to knot up behind him.


After a dozen gentle breeze-like spells, Harry called a halt. "I can't work this out," he said of his attempts to block ordinary curses by feel rather than by wand. "And I'm quite tired of standing here getting hit. Let's work on something else."

She lowered her wand and considered him. "Even I'm tired of hitting you repeatedly, Harry," she stated.

"I appreciate that you're trying to help," Harry said.

"Actually, my attenuation has got quite good of late from having to tone down all these curses to harmless level," she said. "The other day, I wanted to heat a single toffee because it had got too cold in my pocket to bite into, and it was really easy. Before, I would have scorched the wrapper."

"I'm tired of dreaming about fighting without a wand," Harry complained, rubbing his hair back and gratefully raising his wand. "Let's just do regular attack-counter drills."

"You're not giving up for good?" she demanded, automatically raising her wand too.

"For now. I'm starting to think it's not possible for me to block any sort of curse without a wand. I can feel the curse, but I can't do anything about it in time."

"You shouldn't give up," she said sharply.

"Well, I won't give up, but I need a break."

Ginny said, "We'll just do less of it, but I'm not going to let you quit. It's too amazing of a skill if you think you can do it."

Aaron, who stood off to the side listening until then, said, "It's not that amazing," a little peevishly. "Someone could still Charm him to death."

"Yeah?" Ginny prompted disbelievingly, blushing again.

"For example, a Snare Charm inside a Water Bubble Charm could drown someone."

Ginny lowered her wand and said, "Only a Slytherin would think of that."

"I'm just sayin'," Aaron returned, arms broadly uncurling as he spoke.

The conversation turned to the topic of countering spells as they fell into rounds of drills. They broke for snacks after Ginny decided dinner with her parents did not sound all that interesting and Harry sat back and watched her engage Aaron in conversation.

Candide arrived some time later and immediately dropped into a chair at the table to sort her post. She did not make a note about Harry having two guards.

Harry took a deep breath and said to her, "I need to run out to exchange guards—" He was interrupted by a tray holding two bowls sparkling in before her.

Candide sighed and picked up the spoon to eat a scoop of orange ice cream. "Just what I wanted: kumquat ice cream."

"What's the other?" Ginny asked, squinting with a funny face at the second bowl.

Candide leaned forward to sniff. "Pickled radish, I think."

"Right," Harry said, backtracking on what he planned to say. "Hm, maybe Ginny will stay with you while I go fetch Tonks, you know, my next guard."

Aaron nibbled on a crisp and said, "She doesn't get assigned as guard much, does she?"

"She hasn't lately," Harry agreed. Candide ate with too much vigor to notice that Harry may have concocted an excuse to leave when he was not supposed to.

At seven, Harry and Aaron waited at Tonk's flat, but she did not show up. Despite Tonks' poor history of punctuality, they went to the Ministry at just past the hour to look for her.

The Aurors office was busy with Ministry staff going in and out.

"Wonder what's going on," Aaron muttered as they dodged out of the way of another fast striding person while trying to listen in at the door.

Mr. Weasley went by, hands full of files, saw the two of them there and said to them. "Good, go fetch whatever Rodgers needs in Interrogation Room Two."

The two of them glanced at each other and headed that way. Inside Room Two, they found Rodgers crouched before a prisoner, who sat against the wall, looking wary and confused. Harry had his wand out, as was procedure, but his thoughts were not quite on standard procedure.

Rodgers said, "Fetch me the Truth Serum Support tray. Either he's immune to Veritaserum, or it needs a supplemental Tongueloosener."

Harry gestured for Aaron to fetch the potions while he took up a position behind Rodgers right shoulder. The man on the floor had an average appearance in his face and hair. The only things out of the ordinary were his boot was scorched and his hand was tucked against his abdomen as if it were injured.

"How'd he get hurt?" Harry asked.

"He won't say," Rodgers said, tugging on the man's arm and it limply flopped outward. His hand showed puckered streaks like a burn. "He and his companion were tied up inside the phone box and lowered into the Atrium anonymously. But I'm beginning to suspect their memories were wiped."

The prisoner's brow furrowed as he took Harry in, eyes flickering with recognition. Harry couldn't read anything in his eyes beyond general wariness, surprise, and an intrepid desire to keep a secret.

Aaron returned and hovered the tray in the far corner since the room had no furniture. He brought the potions Rodgers requested and an empty glass to mix them in. Rodgers used a spell to force the prisoner to drink it, then sat back in his heels to wait for it to work. A trickle of violet potion dribbled from the corner of the prisoner's mouth, making Harry swallow convulsively. This was all standard procedure, but it was making him uneasy.

Rodgers patted the man hard on the leg. "So, there. What's your name?"

The prisoner thought about that and faintly answered, "Francesco."

"Now were getting somewhere. Francesco what?"

"Francesco," came the monotone reply.

They went back and forth a bit, failing to elicit anything meaningful. Rodgers stood to pace and Harry said, "He's got the look of Durumulna."

"Oh, he does. We're going to have to wait a week or three for that to wear off so we can see what he really looks like." He waved at the potion tray. "Let's try the other prisoner next. But I'm not hopeful."

Harry found Tonks sometime later. She said, "I see we are both not getting away from the office."

Harry felt vaguely relieved to be putting off telling her on top of anxious because he would prefer she already know. "I left Ginny keeping Candide company, and I think she'll not mind staying longer since they get along well enough. I do want to talk to you, if you can get away."

Her eyes flickered with renewed worry. "Sure, I'll finish my reports in the morning," she said, which was unusual for her. "Let's go."

Harry told Aaron he did not need him for a guard any longer, and he gave Harry a wink as he departed. In Tonks' flat, she kicked off her platform shoes and padded, shorter, to the table to set her post down on a teetering pile.

"If it weren't for howlers, I'd sometimes open none of my post," she said. She stared at the envelope on top of the stack and then turned toward Harry, gaze lowered. "I think I know what you are going to say," she said, mouth twisted half into a frown.

"I sincerely doubt it," Harry said. "But first." He pulled out his wand and circled the flat, securing it from everything he could think of, including forcing Animagi to reveal themselves. He returned to where she stood watching him do this, wand out still after taking care of spelling the door while he did the rest.

Harry said, "I've wanted to tell you some things, but . . . well, Severus didn't think it was a good idea for me to tell you . . . anyone, actually," he amended quickly. "But I want you to know." They stared at each other. Harry said, "Why don't you sit down? That way I can sit down."

Tonks pushed back a chair, nearly toppling it, caught it, and sat down, pushing against the table to rock back on two legs.

Harry pulled the other chair around closer and clasped his hands together. "So, the thing is . . . and I do agree with Severus that it would be better if the Ministry didn't know what I'm going to tell you . . ."

"I don't plan on telling anyone, Harry," she stated a tad coldly.

"Good. Okay. It's like this. Well, first of all, you know already how I can call the Raksashas out of the Dark Plane, but what you don't know is that I can go there too." When she stared at him without speaking, he went on, wanting to minimize that. "Er, what that means is that I can Apparate, in a way, practically anywhere, without a sound. That day by the windmill when I followed you and I shouldn't have . . . and you thought I had my cloak. I had used the Dark Plane to travel to you." He stood up. "Watch." Harry went in and out, moving just a few feet.

She let her chair drop with a thud back to four legs. "That's nice," she said, intrigued. Then, confused, asked, "Your going where to do that?"

"Er, the Dark Plane." He waved his level hand over the floor. "It's just below us."

In a neutral confirming voice, she asked, "And this is where those demons live?"

Reluctantly, Harry replied, "Yeah. But they don't bother me unless I don't believe I can overpower them."

She exhaled thoughtfully, seeming to put that aside for later. After a beat, she confirmed, "And you can go anywhere?"

"Essentially. Hogwarts, Department of Mysteries, I assume any vault at Gringotts but I haven't tried that."

She snorted lightly. "You're Harry; of course you haven't tried that." She crossed her arms and raised a hot pink brow. "Fetch something from the Department of Mysteries," she said, challenging him, which made Harry warm straight through.

Harry disappeared straight away, entering the most secretive Ministry department in one of the back corridors he figured to be less trafficked. Being evening, he heard nothing from where he stood between a room holding shelves of books and one holding the glass prophecies, the shelves sparsely occupied since Harry and his friends had broken most of them.

On tip-toe, Harry made his way around to the work room. With the soothing bubble and hum of the Tank of the Ancients lulling him, his eyes sought out something unique that he could slip away with. The deep high shelves over one of the desks caught his eye. He'd seen Merton's cane there, but did not see it now. He stepped closer and spied it, tucked away better, the velvet sacked cinched and knotted. Biting his lip, he carefully drew it out from under some other boxes and packages and disappeared with it.

Back in Tonks' flat, he presented the cane to her with a little bow.

She shook her head and tested the heft of it through the sacking before handing it back, saying, "That is how you captured Fuego. You followed him, when he disappeared the way they tend to."

"Yes," Harry said, relieved that she was catching on quickly.

She stood and waved at the strip of wall beside the door to the sitting room. "You can leave that there, I'll return it later. I could use a drink I think." She rummaged in the cabinets, swearing faintly. "They wouldn't be able to hold you in the rebuilt Azkaban, either," she said.

"The French prison has some special protection, since they can hold Fuego," Harry pointed out.

"Yes. We've had to send them the one other vampire we apprehended a few decades ago because we couldn't hold her." She rummaged under the sink next, coming up with a silver bottle from behind the dusty cleaning supplies. "But we don't have the skill to add that protection, and don't need it normally anyhow. Apparition and portkey barriers are usually sufficient." She sat back, legs wide and casual, and took a swig from the bottle. "Well, I understand Severus' concern. I really do," she said grimly, biting her lips in between. "After what happened with Sirius . . ." She trailed off and frowned worriedly before looking away and holding the bottle out to him.

Harry waved off the bottle. "That's not all."

She froze mid-putting the bottle to her lips. "That was the easy one; wasn't it?" she asked. "You have an annoying tendency to do that: good news first."

"That was the easy one, yes," Harry said, plowing on, "The other thing is that from within the Dark Plane, I can go to other Planes besides this one. Places where other events have happened in the past and the present isn't the same." He waited for any reaction and didn't get one. He went on. "When I disappeared, supposedly to Latvia, I was really in another Plane where I had died as a First Year and Voldemort was headmaster of Hogwarts. I could have come back right away . . . but I wanted to destroy him before I left."

She blinked many times in a row and set the bottle down with a thunk. It was a minute before she ceased to appear stunned and ill. "Another place where things worked out differently?" she echoed.


She leaned forward over her fists propped on the table and said, "Are you certain you didn't imagine this? Like a dream?"

"I'm certain."

"Harry," she chastised. "Really, how can that be possible?" She grinned faintly and continued to sound critical. "Voldemort as headmaster?"

"Well, in one place he was, in the other he was just still alive. See, time is the same in these other places, but the events are different."

She rocked her spiky hair, and still did not appear to believe him. She turned to glance at the cane in the corner. "So, you fetched that using this Dark Plane and you came back here, but you could have gone somewhere else?"

"Well, it takes some extra effort to go to a different Plane. And it is super cold in between, so I nearly freeze to death. Just popping in and out of this one, I've got good at."

Her brow did not un-furrow. "How many times have you done this . . . going to this other place where things are different?"

"Three. A count I'd prefer you not tell Severus."

She picked up the bottle again to gesture at him with it, still disturbed. "You have a lot of secrets going here, Harry."

Harry glanced at the clock. "And another secret is that I'm here at all. I should get back."

She considered pocketing the bottle, but left it on the table. She sighed significantly and stepped up close to him and stroked his arms through his cloak. "I'm glad you told me." Her eyes crossed, before she closed them and held them that way. "Well, I think I'm glad. Yeah." She opened her eyes and gazed at him rather closely, sounding mentorish. She said tiredly, "You are not going to be able to resist using this way of getting around, and you'll need cover."

Harry smiled. "Thanks for that. I need all the help I can get."

"You may need help, but you don't need a guard; that's for certain," she stated crisply, sounding slightly put-upon or jealous.

"I agree. Get Mr. Weasley to agree, please," Harry said. "I'm so very tired of this."

"Well, you are grounded, so let's get you home before you get caught for that."

They arrived in Shrewsthorpe and Candide, without pickles and ice cream as a distraction, was a little sharper this time. "Where were you exactly?"

"I got caught up at the Ministry," Harry said. "Tonks wasn't at her flat where we were supposed to meet."

Tonks smoothly said, "Someone unexpectedly left the Ministry a present and we were shorthanded."

Ginny said with a weak laugh, "Little early for Christmas."

Tonks said, "Strange gift too. Minister is calling a presser in the morning, so I can tell you what happened if you like."

Ginny leaned forward. "Do tell."

Tonks, finding amusement in it, explained about the two gang members being stuffed in the phone box and sent down to the Atrium.

Ginny smiled strangely. "So, what do you think happened?"

Tonks replied, "We suspect they displeased their masters and got punished this way, which is why the Minister is more than willing to make an example of them."

"Huh," Ginny said, sitting back. She bit her lip and Harry tried to catch her eyes, but she kept them elsewhere. She departed soon after and Harry did not want to say anything in front of the others, but he strongly suspected she knew something.

Up in his room, Tonks settled in with a book while Harry penned a letter to Ginny. He wrote simply:

I can understand wanting to keep a secret, but sometimes sharing it can prevent a lot of trouble. Trust me.

Her reply arrived in the morning:

I don't feel like telling. It's under control.

Harry frowned at the message as he tossed it into the fire, remembering with a jolt that the prisoners were burned.

"So, what do you think?" Candide asked a little sharply.

"Huh?" Harry said, spinning around to face her. He had not been listening.

She laughed lightly and glanced at Tonks tucking into a second helping of breakfast. "I said, shall I convince Severus to let us all go out, even though you will still be grounded?"

"Oh. I'd like that, but it's all right. I don't want to push him." He sat down again across from Candide and let the mystery draw burn slow circles in his head.

Candide leaned back from the table with a sigh and distractedly rubbed her belly. Tonks wiped her mouth and said, "Severus ready for a baby?"

Candide laughed lightly. "I doubt it."

Harry put his other concerns aside and listened more closely.

Candide grinned and shook her head, making her hair shift. "He'll figure it out fast enough."

Harry did not feel as certain. "You think so? Maybe."

"What are you getting him for his birthday?" Candide asked. "I haven't figured anything out yet. I thought it'd be easy, but all I see when I'm out shopping is things for the baby. Which reminds me . . . we have to clear out one of the other upstairs rooms for the cot."

Harry's skin pricked at the thought that she might want to use the room where Snape had performed the dark magic spell to locate Harry the night he flew off. Thinking quickly, he said, "Maybe you should use my room and we can move me over to one of the other rooms." There was nothing but molding furniture in the farthest room on the first floor. Even he would prefer to not sleep in the room where he first felt the Dark Plane, even though he now understood it.

"You wouldn't mind? That'd be more convenient to have the baby's room next door."

Relief softened Harry's limbs. "Yeah. No worries. We can talk about it this weekend when Severus is here." Harry blinked into the distance. "But a present," he breathed. "I forgot about his birthday."

"As long as you didn't get him something fantastic that I have to top," Candide said, "we're fine."

"I have to think of something," Harry said. "And fast."

- 888 -

Friday evening, Harry waited with Vineet for Snape to come home. Harry did not feel like spending Friday reading for training, so he instead read through that week's newspapers. Several days' commentary had been devoted to the mysterious gang members handed over to the Ministry. One letter writer, calling himself Oldetimy Occlutist, stated that he hoped the blokes' parents themselves had finally grown fed up enough to turn them in themselves. Harry hoped that was not the case.

"What time does your adoptive father arrive?" Vineet asked.

Harry glanced at the clock. "Soon." Thinking he heard a tinge of impatience in his friend's voice, Harry followed with, "Have something you need to get to?"

"I am taking Hermione to dinner in Hogsmeade."

"OH," Harry said dramatically, while folding up the paper he had before him and selecting the next randomly off the stack. "Well, we shan't keep you too long, in that case."

"I will remain as long as required," Vineet pledged.

"I'm certain Hermione will understand if you're a tad late."

"Oh, it is not late I am worried about being. I was hoping to be early."

Harry raised the next newspaper up to hide his grin, and found himself faced with a photo of himself and Kerry Ann taken during one of the press visits to their training. His heart sped up when he spotted the byline of Rita Skeeter on the article below the headline Aurors in Love, but a quick read-through revealed only vague innuendo around the vastly male dominated Department of Law Enforcement. Harry folded up the paper, giving up on reading while he still had his temper.

Snape arrived minutes later and sent Vineet off with a bow. Vineet, for him, fairly scampered away.

"Ready?" Snape asked, glancing around. "Candide is not home?"

Harry stood and wandered to the front hall for his dress cloak. He called back, "I suggested she be late, so she isn't home before we return."

Snape waited for him to return to the main hall before acknowledging, "Wise of you."

Harry shrugged, resisting pleasure from the compliment.

On the walk up the drive to the rambling Freelander estate, Harry slowed saying, "I haven't figured out what I'm going to say."

Snape stopped. "Difficult to confront a benefactor," he said, an eerie echo of what the alternative version of him had said.

"What would you do?" Harry asked.

In the gloomy surroundings of the gravel drive with a night bird dashing musically overhead, Snape considered that before replying, "I would choose a framing for the issue that he cannot resist."

Harry said, "Okay. I think I have one," and resumed walking, wanting to have this over with.

Freelander was getting ready for a small dinner party. Servants bustled about, walking awkwardly upright as they rushed across the unnecessarily broad rooms. The two of them were led to a parlor adjoining the main suite and Harry asked Snape to wait in a previous room, thinking that it would be too difficult with him there.

Freelander, bright cuffs and collar undone, came in and gestured curtly at a seat as he selected cufflinks from a jewelry box held out to him by a servant. The dour servant assumed a waiting position a step back, and Harry said, "Perhaps I should speak with you alone, sir."

When the servant had departed, Harry, keeping Snape's advice firmly in mind, said, "I may be out of line here, but I must ask you something because your answer affects the security the Ministry is keeping around me." Harry took a deep breath and said to Freelander's curious gaze, "Have you sent someone to spy on Aaron?"

A thick, trimmed brow went up and Freelander tossed his other cuff straight to hook it. "Yes. Not that it is any concern of yours."

"Yes, well, it was upsetting the security around myself," Harry carefully explained.

"Oh, yes, well, I told my man to forthwith avoid investigating when Aaron is in your presence."

Freelander stood and tugged his waistcoat over his round frame. "If that is all?"

It was not all. Harry wanted to know what he was up to. "Why are you having him followed?" he asked.

Freelander reddened faintly. "As I said, no concern of yours."

"It is my concern" Harry said, finding a route out of the maze of owing this man. "He's my friend and I don't want to see him hurt."

"Hurt? How could he possibly get hurt, Mr. Potter?" Freelander asked, pulling out his watch to glance at it, clearly ready to be done with this meeting.

Harry could not understand what he had just heard and felt caution slip away. "What do you mean? You're threatening to upset everything he understands about his father and you wonder how he could be hurt?"

Freelander deliberately slipped his watch away into the small pocket at his waist. "You're easy to underestimate, Mr. Potter. Or did you to interrogate my man Young and he just did not want to tell me that."

Harry shook his head. "He got away."

The crinkles in Freelander's face shifted as he reconsidered things. "I expect you to leave it to me to tell Mr. Wickem." This was stated as a dismissal.

Harry said, "I will leave it to you if I can, but like I said, he's my friend. I can't promise you that."

Freelander sighed faintly and picked up his cane. "I have a dinner party to host, I'm afraid. Clydeswayne will see you out." A wave of his wand summoned the butler.

As they were led back through dimly lit room after room, clinking glasses and energetic voices emanated from deeper within the house. In the entryway, their cloaks were returned and the butler hurried off with a quick bow.

"Get everything straight?" Snape asked.

"Maybe," Harry said with a shrug.

"Perhaps not worth granting an exception to your grounding in that case," Snape stated.

"It WAS him," Harry said, feeling anger. "I was right."

"As you presumed," Snape said dismissively.

Harry stared at his guardian, vastly out of place in the white, baroquely plastered entry hall lit by an overhead chandelier. He wondered why they were at odds again, but felt little desire to back off. "Grounding me was ridiculous anyway," Harry said.

"I will decide that," Snape said, taking a step toward the door, but keeping his narrow gaze pinned on Harry. Harry moved to follow, and Snape turned fully on him. "What did you shake your guard for?"

"I went to rescue someone," Harry replied stiffly, thinking that in this strange place that roundabout would be the best way to speak. "Someone who, because of me, had no protection from the law and was suffering greatly as a result."

Snape slowly shook his head.

"What would you prefer I do?" Harry demanded in a harsh whisper.

"You know nothing about the situation in that place. You presume everything."

Harry met his guardian's fierceness with his own. "I knew that he'd helped me; that's all I needed to know."

"You are out of control, Harry, with this power. You have no idea the trouble you could instigate."

"What are you jealous or something?" Harry asked.

Snape's head tilted in a way that told him he had gone too far.

"Nevermind, forget I said that," Harry muttered.

Snape's cloak spread wide as he propped his hands on his hips. "I don't know what to do with you."

"Don't do anything," Harry said. "I don't understand what you're so upset about." A rush of laughter drifting in from far away, made Harry glance around in case they were being watched. He did not see anyone and all the glittery-framed paintings looking on were of the static, Muggle sort.

Snape's voice lowered. "I am upset about the unnecessary risks you take. You do not possess sufficient wisdom to go with your powers."

"I do fine," Harry insisted. "I'm an adult now, in case you hadn't noticed."

Snape bit his lips and dropped his head in frustration. "Let's go. Candide will be returning shortly."

The house was empty when they arrived. Harry dropped onto the couch with a huff and crossed his arms. To himself he had to admit he was deathly tired of being guarded all the time and was taking that out on Snape.

"You're making too much of this," Harry calmly said, looking for a bridge.

Snape faintly shook his head in more a philosophical gesture than a reply. With matching renewed calm, he said, "As the parent, I get to decide what is to be made an issue of."

"You're starting to sound like my uncle Vernon."

"Insults will not help," Snape said.

Candide arrived home during the impasse that followed and stepped into the space between them. "Am I interrupting?" she asked.

"No," Harry replied.

"Well, that's unfortunate, because it looks like you need an interruption." She waved a chair in from the drawing room and took that rather than sitting beside one of them. "So, what's the trouble?" she asked, tugging off her long pointed boot to rub her foot while making a pained face.

Snape pondering her with an air of disbelief before giving in and saying, "Harry does not obey anything I say any longer."

She tugged off a second boot. "Well, that's hardly a surprise, given his age."

Harry shot a told-you-so look across at his guardian.

"Whose side are you on?" Snape demanded of her.

"Neither," she chirped. "That's why I'm sitting in the middle." She shifted her chair and stretched her toes out. "Are your demands unreasonable, Severus?"

"I am demanding that he stick with one universe. And no, that is not unreasonable."

Candide turned to Harry. "You jumped off to some other place again?" At Harry's nod, she tsked a bit.

"I can handle myself," Harry said. "He doesn't trust that I know what I'm doing. I told Tonks what I can do and she's completely on my side," he added smartly. "Why can't you be on my side?" Harry asked, feeling a tender stab as he said this.

Snape sat forward, shoulders hunched defensively. "I am always on your side. Whatever gave you the notion I was not? I refuse to allow you to harm yourself before you learn what you are doing. What part of that is not being on your side?"

Candide's gaze came around to Harry and they both waited for him to speak. "I don't know," Harry admitted, flustered. "It just . . . It just feels like you are seeing trouble where there isn't any, just to tell me what to do."

Snape's voice entered the low dangerous range. "That is not at all the case. Your powers carry unknown dangers . . . " He held up his hand for silence. "About which you are blithely cocky. And you refuse repeatedly to listen to warnings on a number of subjects."

"You don't know it's dangerous; you're just guessing," Harry said.

"As. Are. You." Snape replied. "I want to forbid you to use the Dark Plane or to visit any other Planes, but I suspect you will simply disobey me." He stood and paced.

"You don't understand," Harry said. "If I fear that Dark Plane, it will overtake me. And if I don't fear it, it doesn't matter if I go there."

Snape's brow furrowed and he did not reply, but simply rubbed at the worry lines between his eyes.

"If I may say," Candide said, half-raising her hand like a student might. "I don't think grounding Harry did anything except exacerbate the situation. But that's just my opinion. He's already essentially grounded with a guard all the time anyhow."

Harry nodded eagerly that he agreed with this. Snape tapped his knuckle to his teeth thoughtfully.

Candide slapped her hands on her lap and said, "Why don't we go out tomorrow and do something . . . as a family."

The last word shot through Harry. He did not really intend to make trouble, but he also could not control how chafed he became from his situation.

"An excellent idea," Snape said faintly, trying to sound pleased.

"Harry?" Candide asked. "You have plans?"

"No, I was still grounded. I don't have any plans. Going out sounds good."

- 888 -

The next day, a glaringly bright mid-November day where the sun starkly angled around every solid object, found them wandering York on a shopping trip. Candide stopped before the window of yet another baby clothiers and bent to take a closer look at the delicate, lacy things laid out on display. Snape wandered ahead, stopping to peer up at a sign promising dungeon tours, complete with instruments of torture, highwaymen, plagues, and Guy Fawkes.

Candide straightened and leaned close to Harry, "Your little tiff yesterday gives me hope that he's ready to have a younger son around the house."

"It does?" Harry said.

"Don't you think?" she said, sashaying slowly on as if to draw out their conversation before they were within earshot of Snape. She took Harry's arm and leaned on him slightly, making him wonder if she needed a break before lunchtime. "Are you ready for a younger brother?"

"Yes," Harry said, thinking that he'd rather like that.

Her voice dropped. "I think you're hoping it will fully distract your father," she accused.

"It might do that too," Harry agreed, not having considered that before.

She peered up at the Dungeon advert when Snape pointed at it suggestively and said, "Here I'm telling Harry to stay out of trouble."

Snape airily stated, "I thought there might be comic value in the Muggle notion of horror."

Candide ducked her head to chuckle. "My feet need a break. Maybe something else for now."

They minced down to the corner where there was a small coffee shop. The bell on the door jangled as Snape held it open for Candide. He gestured at the neighboring shoe shop window with its array of towering, spiked-heel shoes and said, "There's a real torture chamber there."

They shared a grin, which erased most of Harry's unease. They settled around a window-embraced table with their steaming drinks and Harry put aside all the mysteries and concerns he had on his mind and just enjoyed the moment. Over their mugs, Snape and Candide shared abbreviated comments and looks that spoke of unexpectedly deep understanding given how little time they managed to spend together. Harry forced himself to not worry for a time about Aaron, Ginny, Rodgers, Moody, Belinda and his unprovable suspicions about Percy. He put it all aside and with the perspective gained from doing so agreed that Snape probably was right: one universe ought to be enough. At that moment, it certainly was.

Next: Chapter 19 — A Surfeit of Fathers

Harry wrote out two letters in a careful hand and addressed one to Snape and one to himself. He then laid everything out that he would need on the edge of the bed, all clearly in view, all straight and deliberate. His actions felt ritualistic and strange. Perhaps there was a point to be made with what he was planning, a notion that only reinforced the idea, given how constricted he was feeling from his guardian's rules.

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