Chapter 25 — Exchanging Glances

"He probably shouldn't be left alone," Rodgers said after Aaron's back had disappeared into his bedroom.

Ginny swayed on her feet, certain that she would collapse any second. "I can sleep out here on the couch. Tell my dad that I'm here, okay?"

"Keep your wand close at hand," Rodgers stated in a voice of serious instruction.

Ginny's wobbly brain could not decide if he were teasing, or not, or implying something, or what. She chose to treat it seriously. "I always do," she returned as though to suggest otherwise was ridiculous.

Rodgers had turned to go but he stopped. "You're hitting the books, right?"

Her mouth worked before she replied. "Trying to."

"Good."

The Auror Apprentice trainer was gone, then, with a pop! and a flash of gathered cloak. Ginny had somehow forgotten who he was while he was here. Her insides warmed at the thought that he wanted her to get into the program. "That's a treat," she muttered happily to herself.

She decided to check on Aaron and maybe try to get him to eat something more. He had twice turned away his soup after just a few bites. Now she worried he may be ill and in need of a Healer.

Aaron lay on his front, bare-backed, clutching his substantial pillow around his head. The room smelled of wood finishing oil and something floral like a laundry scent from the bedding. Ginny doubted he was asleep already. She said, "Do you want something else to eat?"

Aaron rolled over and scratching his new ear. The covers made a crinkling sound as he shifted his legs. "Mmm, no."

"You must be hungry."

Aaron propped his head up with an arm behind his head and glowered into the dimness of the room.

Ginny asked, "Why don't you want to eat?"

Aaron gave a huff while exhaling through his nose. "You wouldn't believe the stuff they tried to get me to do for food."

Ginny pushed aside the overflowing duvet and sat on the edge of the bed. "Yeah, but you aren't with them any longer."

"Do you have any idea what it's like to be a prisoner like that, at the whim of some mad wizard or another?"

"Yes."

Aaron's breathing fell quiet. Ginny went on with some reluctance at dredging up old memories. To her own ears she sounded remarkably detached. "I was Voldemort's prisoner . . . inside my head."

He stared at her, mouth twitching side to side like a rabbit. "That's right. We all blamed Harry for that." He laughed lightly.

Ginny felt a smile twitch at her own lips; Harry may have deserved that, she thought now with dark humor, but the scent of Aaron from the bath pulled her back to the here and now when he shifted his knees and neatly folded the edge of the duvet at his waist. Training had put muscle on Harry, but Aaron's chest and arms looked merely wiry from what must be comparable routine. He was lean enough that his ribs stood out the way he laid.

"Let me make you something. I noticed the panini press in the kitchen. I can probably work out how to use it, even though it's electric."

"You don't have to make me anything. I ate enough; I can wait for breakfast."

"Change your mind, let me know. I'll be on the couch."

Aaron snaked his loose hand around her wrist. "Why?"

Ginny could not straighten out her lips; they might as well have been hexed into a silly grin. "Aren't you tired?"

His hand slid up to her shoulder. He closed his eyes and said, "I can't imagine sleeping. My mind is stuck in a loop." When she did not move, he added, "Bed's big. Come on."

"I will admit . . . I have not seen larger."

"Well," he huffed, feigning affront, and holding the covers tight up to his chest. "I did not expect you to be so forward."

"What!?" she balked, but her complaint was muffled by his pulling her down for a kiss.

His spasming hands fell limp within moments and Ginny lay resting across his chest, which rose and fell without rhythm. Voice distant, one finger trailing through red strands, Aaron said, "I didn't think I merited you before, but . . . it'd be nice if you stayed . . . here, close."

"Merited?" she echoed, lifting her head. "Was that why you leapt away last time?" When he shrugged faintly and looked away, she added, "That's silly."

"I was too silly," he stated grimly, shifting his shoulders jerkily. "Too shallow to be someone's first time."

She climbed up to better meet him eye to eye with him averting his gaze. "I like that you don't take things seriously. My whole life has been nothing but fear and responsibility and since I've met you, I've been trying to enjoy things more. Things are much nicer that way." Boldly, she ran a finger over his prominent collarbone. "I like you the way you were." She put her head back down on his chest, flooding her nose with intriguing layers of scent.

"You are much too serious," he said sternly.

"Well," she said with a sigh, "I'm trying."

He said factually, "You'd be much less serious with those clothes off."

- 888 -


The front door chime woke Aaron and Ginny from deep within dreamless sleep. Ginny raised her blurry eyes and looked around in confusion.

"It's Harry," a voice said, echoing clearly over the top of the partition wall of the bedroom. Daylight from the windows poured into the white-walled sleeping area even with the door closed.

"Eep," Ginny squeaked and leapt up, but then had to grab the covers.

Aaron stretched an arm and rolled over, bare to the raw air. "Ah, yes, Harry won't get nearly as much entertainment out of seeing me in the buff as you . . ."

Ginny, with some fumbling, found Aaron's dressing gown from the night before and had just wrapped herself in it when Harry knocked on the bedroom door and immediately opened it.

"It's late, so I . . . uh," Harry stopped, fingers still clasping the door handle. He took in the scene of Aaron stretched out under the skewed duvet, of Ginny fast reddening, holding an oversized dressing gown around herself.

Ginny straightened her shoulders and it became Harry's turn to blush nearly as fierce a red. "Sorry, I didn't think . . ." No one spoke. Ginny's brows had risen up under her hair; Harry held the door handle for balance; Aaron looked to be falling back to sleep but with a sloppy grin. Harry pointed behind him, over his shoulder. "I'll be out here. I'll make some coffee."

The door closed. Aaron sat up in bed and ruffled his hair so that it stuck up equally in all directions.

"Oh Merlin," Ginny whispered.

Snapping from curled grin to overly concerned, Aaron asked, "What's the matter?"

"Uh, nothing, I suppose." Gathering the crumpled gown closer, she said, "I'll just go shower and dress." In a more reassuring tone, she added quickly, "Nothing's the matter, Aaron."

Aaron slid onto one of the stools at the counter bordering the kitchen, wearing grey jeans and a shirt which he buttoned as he said, "For someone who's faced Voldemort multitudinous times, you sure stun easily."

Harry stopped what he was doing and turned to meet Aaron's mischievous gaze, relieved to see it, even as short lived as it proved to be. Aaron's brow furrowed and he rubbed his shoulder in a manner that clearly pained him. His next glance at Harry was wry. "Can't kvetch to you, really," Aaron pondered aloud.

"You may if you like." Harry set a small cup beneath the spout on a rather large, boxy, and mysterious coffee maker with just a few buttons marring its smooth brushed-metal face. He had seen Aaron use it before, but his memory of it blurred too much to glean the details of how it worked.

"Need rescue from that?" Aaron asked a minute later when an angry hiss of steam made Harry leap back. Aaron sat with his arms crossed, appearing wearily amused.

"I grew up in a Muggle household," Harry reminded his friend.

"Not the right kind. That cost more than your uncle's last car, I bet."

Harry took the cup away and cradled it in his hand. "Well, I definitely don't want to break it, then."

"Oh, don't worry about that. It's been worth every pound already, watching you."

Harry normally would have glared at this, but he did not think Aaron was quite up to taking it the right way. "Well, as long as you don't want any coffee . . ."

"Good point." Aaron slid down off the stool and came around the floor-to-ceiling column that anchored the end of the counter.

Seconds later two steaming cups were set on the counter and a third placed beneath the spout. Harry stared at it and then noticed the shower running. He had forgotten about Ginny. "Er, sorry about barging in like that. I didn't think . . ."

Aaron, in a corrective tone, but with a flash in his eye said, "That much was obvious."

The coffees went down in silence, with Harry lost in thought over what Durumulna's reaction may be to having been cheated . . . or cheated as they would see it. Harry's thoughts darkened at the notion of holding someone hostage. No one deserved money for that, only punishment. If he expected and prepared for their retaliation, maybe he would get a good chance to get even.

Ginny was a long time appearing, and when she did, she kept her eyes on her coffee cup more than anything else. Harry too, found the objects on the counter more interesting than before. He touched a letter that had been left off to the side, then realized he should not read it and pushed it away.

Ginny said, "Oh yeah, Aaron, you have to go visit your mum today."

Harry, thinking Aaron did not look ready for stress of any kind, said, "Do you want someone to go along?"

When Aaron hesitated, Ginny added, "Someone who could help distract her?"

Aaron stalled replying. He refilled Harry's cup before setting it down with a waiter's flourish. He said, "I'm not sure the Wimbledon Boys' Choir would be enough to distract her today."

Ginny said, "And how many of your birthday parties did they sing for?"

"Eh, just one."

Ginny shook her head.

Aaron slipped his hand into hers and leaned over to peck her on the cheek. "They ate two pieces of cake each, so mum didn't have them back."

"Big cake," Ginny said while blushing again. "So, who's making breakfast?"

Harry slid around into the cooking area. "I will." As he assembled things, he glanced back at the two of them.

Ginny shifted the topic and asked Aaron, "Are you going into training today?"

Aaron pulled a gold watch from his dressing gown pocket and tilted his head to read it. "Harry must be skiving off this morning."

Harry came over with toast on plates and said, "You should take today off."

"That the official word?" Aaron asked a tad sharply.

Harry, familiar with the rapidly sea sawing emotions that followed bad experiences, said calmly, "Not exactly. Rodgers said to ask what you preferred. You can have all week off if you need it." Harry watched Aaron for any reaction. Aaron stared through the cabinets on the floor behind Harry, still clutching his shoulder. With care, Harry said, "I think it'd be better if you went back tomorrow if you are at all up to it."

"I'm not really in the mood to get knocked around," he stated distantly.

Harry, despite not having been informed of such, said decisively, "You can sit out the defensive drills. You shouldn't sit here alone, even if all you do is work on readings at the Ministry."

"I'm not alone, I have Ginny."

Ginny snapped her toast off sharply, setting off an explosion of bread crumbs. Harry gave her a single waggle of his eyebrows when she glanced his way in shy surprise.

- 888 -


Harry had indeed lost his guard, it seemed. No one was assigned to follow him at lunch, so he took himself off to the Minister's office. Belinda glanced up at him in surprise and dropped her gaze immediately.

Harry had other things on his mind today beyond wondering what her secrets may be. Perhaps when he finished with the Minister. He asked, "Is the Madame Bones in?"

"Her lunch was just sent in." Belinda waved at the door without looking up. Harry took it as an invitation and slipped over there to knock.

"Harry, I don't think . . ." Belinda was saying as Harry opened the door in response to a muted summons from inside.

Bones left her fork standing upright, puncturing layers of salad piled in a plastic box, and wiped her hands. "Mr. Potter, what a pleasure; what can I do for you?"

Harry shut the door behind him. He felt a clarity of purpose today that he could not resist the call of. Surely a band of random ruffians could be brought to heel; how hard could that be? He asked, "Is absolutely everything possible being done to combat Durumulna?"

She took up her fork again. "Ah, a business call." When she finished that bite, she said, "Yes, Harry, it is." She waved for a chair to set itself closer and indicated it with a flat palm. "Please."

Happy to be treated with such automatic consideration by someone so high, up, Harry took up the chair and sat upright with his hands interleaved. Finding the words easily, Harry stated, "It seems insufficient, the Ministry's actions to date."

She spoke through her napkin. "If you have any ideas, Harry, please share them and we'll consider them."

Her tone came across too pat to believe her. Harry took her in, wondering what the best approach may be. He felt more calculating that usual, and remembered with a jolt sitting in precisely this spot across from her, analyzing her and her office under the influence of Voldemort. Stroking his hair back, Harry composed his thoughts. "You are not making the best use of the public. The average witch and wizard do not wish to cooperate and they should."

"Of course they don't," she said, setting her lunch away. "The cost is too high. Curse and hex treatments on patients at St. Mungo's are up forty percent this quarter already and we have another month to go." She pulled out a file. "Magical Fire Equivalents up thirty-five percent."

Harry cut her statistics short. "But if you made it clear to them, through some kind of campaign, that they would get protection if they helped us . . ."

"Trouble is, Harry, people remember the previous leadership all too well. They are hard to convince."

"But you aren't even trying," Harry came back firmly.

This gave her pause. "Your department is part of the outreach, I'm quite certain, Harry. Every wizard shop in Britain is supposed to be contacted personally by someone from Enforcement by the end of the year."

"Yes, but that's just as secret as Durumulna. They survive in the shadows, on secrecy, so it plays to their strengths." Masks, cloaks and whispered threats, Harry thought with a strange thrill of comfortable familiarity. He composed himself again, covering his unease. "We need a public campaign of . . . shaming or something. Make the public resist them harder. People who hide behind masks, slinking about, lazy and conniving, taking what's not theirs . . ." Harry had built to a crescendo and found he did not recognize himself. He backed down. "It just seems . . . not aggressive enough," he finished weakly, feeling slightly dizzy.

Bones had stood to pace, which Harry only now noted. She picked up a long white quill and ran her fingers over it. "Are you here at the behest of someone in your department, Harry?"

Harry shook his head, wondering belatedly if he should have come only at such behest, but then putting that concern aside as unimportant; something had to be done. This had gone on long enough; someone had to take charge. Such minor thugs could be brought to order by simple enough application of bait, whispered words and threats of pain and humiliation. He could not understand why that hadn't happened already. It would be so easy—the cloaks and masks would make it even easier, keeping everything in the shadows.

She said, "Your rescued fellow is faring well enough, I am informed."

Harry focused on her words. "He's . . . not quite himself."

She smiled sadly. "I expect not, for a while at least." She sighed. "I'm afraid, Harry, that I have meetings to prepare for this afternoon . . . and if you are here on your own initiative, then perhaps you should sneak back before you have gone missing." She gave him a wink.

This understanding shook him from his introspection by cutting through his confused concerns to the clearer core of him. He felt humbled: jarringly the opposite of moments before. Why was he thinking this way, he wondered with suddenly clammy hands.

In the outer area of the suite he strode to the door deep in thought. With a half-wave at Belinda he headed for the back stairs at a shuffling, distracted pace. A dark shadow approaches undetected, gathering the slumbering willing in its web, the prophecy came back to him. Minutes ago he was imagining how childishly easy it would be to bring Durumulna to heel. Maybe he should stop imagining that.

As he made his way back to the training room, he considered that Durumulna was not exactly slumbering, but this was little consolation. Harry pulled out his books, wondering if he should go speak with Snape that evening. Something seemed to be waking that chunk of the Dark Lord he still carried or, at least, he expected that was the explanation.

Harry forgot about his half-planned visit to Hogwarts when Ginny and Aaron arrived for dinner that evening, followed closely by Ron, who did not hide well that he was only checking up on his sister.

In the corner of his vision Harry noticed Ginny leaning away from Aaron, and putting her hands in her lap. Ron ambled over and took a seat beside his sister, sitting far forward to half turn toward the two of them. He appeared to want to speak, but could not find words.

Harry filled in the silence with, "How are things at the bank, Ron?"

"Er, less trouble, and a lot fewer customers, with the new security schemes. Quiet."

"Too quiet?" Harry prodded, simply to distract him.

"No. Er . . . whatcha mean by that?"

Harry was not certain what he meant by that. He looked over his friend, his mussed hair, the spray of freckles across his nose, fading with the onset of winter. He would be an easy pawn, some inner instinct told him.

Harry stood suddenly. "I'm just going to make sure that Winky knows you're staying for dinner."

Ginny laughed. "I'm sure she's already doubled everything she's cooking," she called over her shoulder to Harry.

In the darkened corridor leading to the kitchen, Harry stopped and leaned on the wall. Ahead of him, through a low doorway, he could see the cookfire fluttering hot, casting pots and cauldrons and baskets into gilt-edged silhouettes. What was happening to him? He had not dreamed of Lockhart/Voldemort in a long time. On the other hand, what was wrong with trying to get things moving at the Ministry? The masked figures of Durumulna again passed before his mind's eye. It would be so easy. Each of them would have a weakness or two; something they would do anything to get. It started out about money, but it always turned into something else. Harry could taste taking charge of them as an astringent stain on his tongue.

He pushed away from the wall, heart speeding. If this was the prophecy, was he trapped into following this instinct? It couldn't be the prophecy, he assured himself. That was for another place. Or was it?

"You know Ron is here for dinner, right?" Harry asked the house elf.

Winky turned her large, slowly blinking eyes on Harry. "Winky is knowing this, yes."

She looked concerned. Harry managed a small smile and said, "Thanks," before turning away.

At dinner, Harry snuck extra glances at Ginny, unable to shake the implications of the prophecy. She played expertly coy with her brother; even Harry, if he did not have absolute knowledge otherwise, would not have known how close she and Aaron had grown. Aaron for his part would become lost in the conversation for longer and longer periods of time. But every time he bordered on a flippant comment, he fell quiet and rubbed his shoulder or his arm, turned again inside himself.

At the end of the late evening, after Candide had retired, Ron nixed the idea of Ginny taking Aaron home to guard him. Harry intervened before it could grow ugly between the siblings.

"I'll take Aaron home, Ginny, if you stay here as guard."

Ginny looked around, seemingly for the first time. "That's right. Where's your guard?"

"Don't have one. And I'm glad for it enough to not ask about it. But I'd feel better if someone is here with Candide."

Ginny hesitated, lips twitching with the desire to argue more with Ron. "All right," she agreed.

Ron glowered at them in turn, reluctantly mollified.

Harry took Aaron home where he plunked down on the couch with a groan. Harry wanted to allude to his clearly feeling better, but held back, remembering how much he always hated that comment in similar circumstances.

Aaron stretched and with a weak attempt at humor, asked, "So, am I getting a massage from you tonight or are you trading at some point?" He lowered his arms and rubbed one shoulder, face pained, head angled away from Harry.

Harry swallowed. "You seem to be avoiding being funny."

"What good's it do?" Aaron snapped at him, eyes brightening. "Pathetic anyway."

"No, it's not," Harry gently disagreed. "You're always so cheery and lighthearted. People need that."

Aaron did not reply, and Harry sensed he should wait and push on the issue later. Harry sat back with a sigh of his own. Caring about Aaron's state of mind had freed him from darker instincts, another bad sign. Harry shook his head.

"Wha's that?" Aaron slurringly asked.

Harry decided to be honest with him as he had in the past. "Something's going on with me. Like I'm thinking like Voldemort again . . . in a minor way. It just started. Maybe I should ask Mr. Weasley to check that nothing is happening with Lockhart in prison."

"Happening like what?"

"I don't know." He looked at his friend, glad he had pulled him out of his funk. It felt good to feel like himself, so when Ginny arrived at one to change places, Harry was a little disappointed, but he left the two of them and went home.

Harry immediately went to Kali's cage and released his sleeping pet. She happily crawled onto his arm and investigated his pocket, finding nothing amiss with him.

Relieved by this, Harry crawled into bed, but found sleep elusive. He kept thinking about the Ginny he knew and the other Plane's Ginny. The prophecy could not be about him, Harry assured himself, but that meant the other Ginny was naïvely living with dark fate stalking her, failing to prepare properly.

Harry turned himself over and pulled the duvet tighter, forcing his mind to clear so he could rest.

- 888 -


Harry repeatedly told himself that he had far and away enough to worry about in his own world without traipsing off to involve himself in another one, but by mid-week he began to have second thoughts about this. He considered that once Durumulna discovered the ruse about the Galleons, he would have approximately zero chance to get away. He also found it reassuring to worry about his friends, since it kept other less savory notions and instincts at bay.

Wednesday evening, Harry sat across from Candide, who now spent her evenings buried in bawdily-covered romance novels rather than accounting files. The miniature novel she held up to her nose tonight had an animated picture of a hunchbacked and tattered young man stretching up into a prince just in time to catch a swooning woman in a tall white hat and veil.

Harry decided he should do as he was instructed and ask for advice from his guardian. He dearly felt he should warn the other Ginny. Just warn her. After that it would be her responsibility to see to getting prepared. Relieved to take any action, even just planning, Harry liberated a clean parchment by tearing a used one in two and penned a couched letter.

Dear Severus,

I believe this is my only chance to take care of something I feel I must complete. I expect you to object, but things will only become more busy soon enough after more is discovered. I feel strongly about this and don't believe it will take long to resolve. What do you think of this?


Harry sent his owl off right away bearing the letter. Later that evening as he straightened his room, he heard Hedwig scratch at the window.

The reply was short and on the back of his own letter.

Do as you will, it read. Harry peered at it, tried a few revealing spells, read through his own message and again pondered the reply. Was he giving in, despite his earlier insistence that he never would? Was he expecting Harry to fail and therefore learn on his own? Whatever Snape was thinking, it surely was making Harry think a lot more.

- 888 -


Hermione brushed her hair from her eyes but it immediately fell back, catching on her eyelashes. She bounced her knuckles on the smoky finish of the Defense Against the Dark Arts office door and entered when a voice sounded from inside.

But what she had heard might not have been a request to enter. Hermione stopped in the doorway while taking in the slightly heated conversation between Professors Lupin and Snape.

Lupin barely glanced up before going on. "Severus, we've been over this before. I don't mind your deciding what is taught as part of OWL preparation, but I'm already in the middle of Wee Nettlesome and Vexing Creatures and I want to finish that before moving onto a new subject." He wound down and turned to Hermione. "Ah, you have a meeting."

At his desk, Snape lifted the dark brown cover of his large desk journal and glanced into it before letting it fall closed.

Lupin turned back to Snape, arms conciliatory. "It's true; I'm here at your convenience, but I put a foot down at changes mid-lesson."

"As long as it isn't a paw," Snape muttered. "Ms. Granger, I believe we have a meeting."

Lupin, taken aback by the comment, hesitated moving, as did Hermione.

Snape sighed audibly. "Fine, Remus. But I do want to go over the syllabus before we get any closer to the end of the year."

Lupin gave Hermione a wide-eyed glance of disturbed surprise as he passed her. Hermione, feeling more like a student than she had since becoming a professor, took the visitor's chair.

Snape, as usual, was right to the point. "And your last week of teaching went how?"

Hermione dove right in, upbeat. "Better. Things are feeling more natural."

Snape glanced over parchments that she assumed to be notes of their previous sessions. "You aren't just saying that because you have Sixth and Seventh-Years immediately before this meeting, are you?"

"No, sir," she said automatically. "They actually aren't easier. Well, they are easier to teach, but the expectations are much higher, so really, success is just as difficult to achieve. The younger students, well, they can be maddening at times, but one good session can catch them right up."

Snape tilted his head as though acknowledging this observation and Hermione relaxed marginally. She was trying too much to please, but knowing this did not make it easier to stop doing it. Remembering Snape's uncalled-for comment to Lupin, she put down her own notes and took a closer look at the man across from her. He seemed hard and withdrawn. Well, he always seemed that way, but it had an edge to it today. It was true that something had gone magically awry in the Slytherin Dungeon two nights before and quite a few students were in detention. Even Hermione had been assigned two young Slytherin girls for the next weeks' late evenings. They were the most well-behaved students she had ever had in detention, subdued into keeping their noses down in the books she had assigned them, and answering her followup questions about the reading with undo care.

When they finished discussing the best means of occupying the brightest students and Snape was putting away his notes, Hermione asked, "How's Harry?"

Snape did not exactly glare, but he gave no indication that he may answer. Hermione said, "Yes, I know: Owl him if I want to know."

"I should think."

Her papers gathered to her chest, she hesitated beside the desk. "I think you were a little harsh with Remus, Professor."

With a flickering of his lids, Snape rolled his eyes. "He turns into a werewolf approximately once a month. If he hasn't accepted that yet, there is nothing for it." He pulled out other papers and files, needing to rearrange his unusually crowded desk to do it. "As his potion brewer, I believe I am at liberty to be snide about his situation if I desire to be."

"Still," she said, finding herself on better ground once she had begun to stand upon it.

They stared at each other. "Anything else?" Snape demanded.

He looked busy. "No. Thanks for the review. When's our next meeting?" she added with less than relish.

Snape opened his desk journal again.

- 888 -


Harry spent much of the rest of the week trying to decide what to do. Aaron had returned to full training, even if he had not returned to his usual joking self. Perhaps as a way of avoiding traveling to that other place until he had thought about it longer, Harry invited all of his fellows over for dinner Friday.

Kerry Ann, Ambroise in tow, arrived early because she would depart early for field work. Ambroise held an armful off flowers and a magnum of wine.

"Those are for us?" Harry asked. "You didn't need to do that."

Ambroise bowed with a crinkle of the plastic cradling the flowers and held them out.

"Thanks," Harry said. Winky arrived then with a vase full of water, and Harry handed them on without hesitation.

"What a lovely elf," Ambroise said, perhaps regarding the timing, but Winky squeaked in surprise, and flushed purple around the edges of her ears.

Kerry Ann gave Harry a kiss on each cheek and then Ambroise did the same.

"Erm, why don't we have a seat," Harry said, hoping he wasn't blushing too, and gestured at the couches.

Kerry Ann made a circuit of the room while her date stood patiently beside the couch, refusing to sit before she did. Harry found himself observing all of this, wondering if he should be trying to emulate any of it if the occasion called for it. Ambroise's natural, alien gallantry and style he probably could not copy. His hair looked as wild as Harry's but it was parted far on one side and cut in a wedge that suited his deferential posture.

Kerry Ann finally sat, with a delicate assisting hand from her beau, asking, "Where's Candide?"

"Still at work," Harry replied, thinking that these Frenchmen would spoil the women and good thing there were not more of them about.

Vineet arrived, also bearing a gift, and the table by the couches began to resemble a birthday. After five minutes of sitting across from the attentive couple, he stood and said, "I'll return shortly. Excuse me."

Candide came home, and Harry tried to get her to join, but she said she needed some quiet time before dinner. Ambroise saw her to the stairs like one guiding an invalid, and released her there with a bow and a quaintly accented, "Madame . . ."

Candide looked them over Ambroise's shiny haired head and said with certainty, "I'll be back down for dinner."

Aaron and Ginny arrived and again the gift pile swelled. "Let's open this," Ginny said of the magnum. Ambroise stood up to do it, tying Harry, who also got a hand on the bottle. Winky arrived in a sparkle and made a small ehem. They relinquished the bottle to the elf at the same moment, staring at each other, and Harry realized only then that Ambroise was also competing here.

Tridant arrived and Vineet returned, from the Floo in the dining room, tugging Hermione along by the hand.

"Harry, I didn't get an invite," she complained from inside a hug.

"It was last minute. I didn't know you could get away so easily."

Hermione casually transfigured the spare end table into a chair and sat upon it beside him when he offered his spot on the couch. "Minerva insists I work too hard. And in case I end up as Head of House next year I should take advantage now while I can."

Harry introduced Tridant to his friend and Tridant complained about not knowing he could bring a date. Kerry Ann from across the room, over the din of conversation, said loudly, "Oh, yes. By all means. We'd love to meet her."

Tridant looked around the room. "Well, maybe not. We've only been seeing each other a few weeks and she's from out of town and . . ."

"Not a friend of Aaron's evil date, I hope," Harry said.

Aaron looked over and levered himself off the tightly packed couch, pain backstopping his gaze. "What's this?" he asked quietly.

"Maybe you should bring your new girl over sometime," Harry said.

Hermione said, "Aaron had his troublesome date over for your Halloween party and no one noticed her."

"Oh, we all noticed her," Ginny chimed in, then wrapped her hands around Aaron's elbow.

"I have to have my dates approved?" Tridant said in annoyance. "I don't have a wealthy family, what would anyone want with me?"

"I don't know . . ." Kerry Ann said knowingly. "I think you should bring in her vitae for us to check over."

"You are such a gossip," Aaron said.

Tridant held up his hands and backed out of the group that had gradually surrounded him. "I can take care of myself, really." And from someone his size, this sounded reasonable.

Harry plunked down on the couch with, "I've said that before."

Kerry Ann pressed on, leaning closer to Tridant, "You're the only one dating someone questionable, you know."

"Yeah, you're tight with the French-Flaired Foreign Lege-wizard, here." Tridant stepped up behind Harry and towered his large frame over him. "And Harry's dating another Auror, which he's not supposed to be." He then gestured at Aaron, still with Ginny attached to his arm. "You're dating the boss' daughter . . . are you supposed to be?" he asked in disbelief.

Harry sipped his wine and gave a wink to the two of them, standing there, clinging together like lost puppies. "I don't think the boss has acknowledged it yet."

With a swish of her robes, Kerry Ann returned to her seat and proclaimed, "You're safe for a year, at least. Mr. Weasley is always the last to know anything."

With that, Winky arrived in a sparkle and announced that dinner was being served.

Harry made the mistake of sitting across from Ginny, who was trading whispers with Aaron in a way that helped to keep the other's spirits propped up and involved in the party. Harry had no problem with this. He was pleased that someone had taken his fellow's mental health into attentive care. His difficulty came from the constant reminder of the plight of the other Ginny, a plight that stemmed from an ignorance that would be easy to fixed.

At the end of the night, after his friends had departed, Tonks arrived from her late shift and cuddled up with Harry on the couch where he had been sitting, thinking.

"Kerry Ann does well on field work. She knows just everybody, and people she doesn't know personally, she still knows something about. Bloody useful."

"She was giving Tridant the third degree about the strange woman he's dating."

Tonks stretched, changed her hair to flat, and found a comfortable spot for her head on Harry's ribs. "She's clean. We already checked her out."

"Already?"

"While Aaron was still missing. We're not taking any chances."

Tonks felt pleasantly warm pressed against him in the cooling air of the hall with the scents of the guests fading. Harry said, "I need to take care of something quick in another Plane . . ." He stopped because Tonks was pounding her head against his chest. "I just need a warm up when I return. Come on, I just have to go talk to someone."

She raised her head to look at him, eyes slitted like a cat's, but it faded to normal. "Harry, going to see your parents again is not a good idea."

"I wasn't going to do that," Harry argued. "I have to go talk to that Ginny, to warn her."

"Hm." Tonks put her head back down, wiggling around to find a good spot to rest it.

"Tonks, do you think a prophecy in another place like that could have any bearing in this one?"

She reached up to scratch her head. "I have no idea. What's the prophecy?"

Harry quoted, "A dark shadow approaches undetected, gathering the slumbering willing in its web. It will shatter half a century of peace so that the time before it will seem as if a dream . . . power indescribably heartless will wreak cold vengeance upon wizardom. All will be touched for the worse. The only magic capable of defeating it is contained within the seventh pureblood son who is not."

"Seventh pureblood son who is not? Oh, that does sound like Ginny. Have you told her?"

"That's what I'm going to go do."

Tonks lifted her head again, "No, I mean, this Ginny."

Harry stared at Tonks, the tips of his fingers going numb. "I didn't think it applied."

"Well, but you know it. You're here now with it. Doesn't that make it apply?"

Harry's unblinking eyes widened more. "Do you think that could be true?" he asked in alarm. "Wait, we haven't had a half century of peace," he argued.

"Oh, true," Tonks said, putting her head back down. A moment later, her voice drifted up, "Well, but the Muggle world has."

Harry held his breath. "It can't count," he insisted after a minute. Tonks shrugged in his arms.

"At least you know it's Ginny. We have to get her into the program," she added with confidence.

"Yeah, I was thinking that. Just in case."


Author's Notes: Yes, very very late. Driving cross-country took out more than the week required, I had to then catch up on work. We are back on schedule though. 26 is more than half done.


Next Chapter — 26
Ginny said shakily, "Why don't we both just sit down, hey?"

Harry did so, dizzy with something, perhaps just lack of control over himself. He rubbed his forehead, found he still held his wand, and set it down. Ginny scooped it up and said, "Professor, may I have yours too?"

After a long pause where he searched her gaze, he relinquished his as well.

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