Chapter 40 — Bad Press

Harry's evening started out quiet, a welcome relief, just Candide and himself resting after dinner. The quiet was broken by Hermione arriving for an unannounced visit. She eyed the pile of opened presents on the table while loosening her gloves then smiled and gave Harry a hug.

"How are you, Harry?" she asked, not a meaningless greeting, but a serious question.

"I don't know," Harry replied, unable to be less than honest with his old friend.

This reply brought Candide's attention up from the letter she was writing. Harry stared at Hermione's feet, considering suggesting they move out of earshot.

Hermione patted him on the arms and moved to take a seat. "Professor Snape suggested I make a visit." She shrugged apologetically. "He even assigned one of his Seventh-Year Slytherins to do the marking I was working on when I hesitated." Grinning a bit, she added, "He assured me she would mark the essays even more brutally than I do." She looked Harry over. "So, you are not going back to the Ministry?"

Harry ran his best Animagus-detection spell before approaching to sit across from his friend. Hermione reached into her pocketbook for a copy of the Prophet. At Harry's noise of curiosity, she asked, "You didn't see this?"

Candide leaned over to look as Harry opened it, explaining to Hermione, "I added a Hate-Owl blocking Charm on the windows. It sometimes means we don't get a paper."

Harry could not be more pleased with the article that made the evening edition. Potter and Ministry in Splitsville the tall headline read. He hoped whomever he met with in Durumulna tomorrow had a subscription to the paper as well. He suspected he or she would have. Rodgers always asserted that half of what a gang did was aimed at getting to read about it later.

Skeeter had written exactly what Harry had said at the shop, then chased down various Ministry officials for comment. The inset photograph was of Bones waving the camera away like an insect. The caption stated she would not comment until she had met with Harry herself. There was nothing in the article about the kiss.

Harry, hiding a grin, held the paper out for Candide when she reached for it. Hermione gazed wistfully at Harry. "I thought being an Auror was what you wanted." The comment made Harry wonder if they now knew each other about as poorly as he and the alternative Hermione did.

When Harry did not respond, Candide, nose buried in the paper, asked, "What are you hoping to get from them?"

Hermione replied for him. "Harry doesn't want anything. Do you Harry?"

Candide stated philosophically, "Everyone has a price."

"You only say that because you're an accountant," Harry pointed out, surprised to hear her being so cynical.

"It doesn't have to be money." Candide raised her head, handing the paper back. "Rita Skeeter is looking for validation. That's her currency of trade: notoriety for knowing things others don't. She can be bought off with that currency . . . for a while at least."

"You still think I should grant her an interview," Harry lightly accused.

"It's her price for being nice."

"For a little while," Hermione muttered. "Also works to simply get the better of her."

"Right. For a little while," Harry echoed, and the two of them shared a knowing look about the past.

Winky arrived with mulled wine. Hermione took a glass and sat back with a sigh. "This is nice . . . having an evening off."

"Sounds like you work too hard," Candide said, reading the back page.

"Look who's talking," Harry said.

Candide rubbed her mounded belly before resting her hand atop it. "That will end soon. Boss was reluctant to let me go to half time, but I think I will, starting next week. Already can barely tolerate the Floo." She held the paper out and changed the topic. "So, who's the new flame, Harry?"

"What?"

Candide tapped the back page of the paper in Harry's hands, open before him, but unread. "That."

Harry read Skeeter's gossip column and found that his arresting Ginny's speech had not gone unprinted.

Potter has not only moved on from duties at the Ministry, he has also (just in time!) moved on from dating one of the Ministry Aurors. Rumors too hot to ignore reached the ears of your intrepid reporter and I am merely dutifully passing them on to you, my loyal reader.

Candide read the blurb aloud and added, "Did you break up with Tonks without my noticing?" she asked, stunned.

"No. Skeeter's mistaken."

Hermione said, "Harry, you better find Tonks then and explain."

Harry sat back, thinking that seeking Tonks out would put him at a disadvantage, somehow. "She'll come to me."

"Harry! What is wrong with you. Go find her."

Just the tone of her voice made Harry sit up. He could not deny her argument, really. "Right." Brushing his hair back, he said, "You'll stay here?"

"I don't need a guard," Candide argued. "If that's what you're thinking."

"Yes, you do," both Harry and Hermione said in unison.

Harry tried Tonks' flat, but found it quiet and empty. Her copy of the newspaper lay on the ledge outside, rotting with a few older editions. Perhaps she had not even seen it. But anyone else who had would not neglect to mention it.

Worried he may no longer be authorized to enter the Ministry after hours and not willing to submit to the night guard's scrutiny, Harry used the Dark Plane to slip inside the Ministry, into the stairwell just outside the door to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Rogan and Rodgers were on evening duty and they both stared when Harry put his head inside the office.

"Potter," Rodgers said. "To what do we owe the visit?"

"I was looking for Tonks."

Rogan, wide-eyed, averted his gaze back to his reports. Rodgers appeared amused. "She's not here. Said she was going out for a nip, isn't that what she said, Tristan?"

Rogan appeared uncomfortable with having to answer. He muttered, "Something."

"Did she see the paper?" Harry asked.

Rodgers leaned on his desk and nodded, evaluating Harry more than conversing.

"Why didn't she just come see me? How long ago did she leave?"

"Few hours," Rodgers said, seeming to enjoy stringing Harry along, which shifted Harry into a different mood.

Rogan, burrowing farther into his report work, muttered, "She needed a night off anyway . . . needed to unwind a bit."

When Harry started to duck out of the doorway, Rodgers asked, "How are you doing, Potter?" His posture remained aloof and his voice calculating.

"Good to be home, sir," Harry said, clearly sounding artificially pleasant.

Harry Apparated away to search the wizard pubs. He found Tonks in Grimsby at a pub wedged into an alley between two small shops. It was so old the magic to make it larger on the inside than the out no longer could be made to work. Harry squeezed his way through the smoky brown murk to where Tonks sat, arguing with someone whose bright golden curls made prickles crawl on Harry's arms.

Harry stopped just within earshot and listened in. In the gloom, with her attention elsewhere, Tonks did not notice Harry's approach.

"Look, why don't you go bother someone else?" Tonks was saying. Her face showed red strain, even in the poor light. Harry thought it unfortunate that she did not just haul out her wand and use one of a hundred repelling spells Harry knew she could perform without thought.

Ingratiatingly, Skeeter said, "My dear, don't you want to get it all off your chest? You will feel sooo much better for it . . ." She leaned closer, making her bejeweled handbag sway off her shoulder. She smoothly hitched it up again. "It always goes without saying for the famous . . . they think they are above the usual polite rules."

"Like someone else we could mention," Harry offered loudly.

Skeeter spun on Harry. "Well, Mr. Potter. This is delicious." She gestured at someone farther along the long, narrow pub. Harry subtly waved a Freezing Curse at the photographer who tried to stand up from his table.

Skeeter's eyes flashed with anger. "What's the meaning of that. Ministry rules prohibit employees to interfer-"

"I'm not with the Ministry," Harry smartly pointed out. "Why don't you move along? Make something up, like you usually do."

"Oh ho, I didn't make this one up, and you know it. I saw you locking sweet red ones with the youngest Weasley." She pounded her fist into her other hand, adding to herself, "If only I'd had my photographer with me."

"You were sneaking around in Animagus form, a strict violation of Ministry regulations."

"Ah ha," Skeeter said, shining red lips stretched wide. "So, you admit it's true?"

Tonks' gaze took on a new distance and she pulled her mug close.

Voice low, Harry said to Skeeter, "Go away."

Skeeter glanced at her photographer, still frozen, half standing from his table below a crooked hanging of a dragon circling over a tower. "Are you threatening me, Mr. Potter?"

Her supercilious mockery made Harry reach for the shadows, but he was like a man grabbing a robe hanging just out of reach. He teetered and closed his eyes to recover. When he opened them again he found the room much dimmer.

Tonks drunkenly pushed her chair back. "Harry . . ." her concerned voice came from the right side of Harry's tunnel vision.

Skeeter had moved to her photographer and was repeatedly waving an Unencumber Charm at him. Harry took Tonks' hand, clammy from her mug, and Apparated them away.

In the hall in Shrewsthorpe, Tonks shook off his hand and stared at her feet, hiding her face from the room. She gave a faint wave to Hermione when the other greeted her warmly.

Harry took Tonks' shoulders and said, "Let me explain, please. We've been setting Skeeter up for a fall. Ginny didn't know Skeeter was spying on us at the shop and was about to let slip that Freelander is about to buy the Prophet."

Tonks shook her shaggy brown mane, having trouble catching up with that after so much alcohol. "What's this?"

Candide interjected, "Freelander is making a secret offer to buy the paper expressly to fire Skeeter."

Tonks' red-rimmed eyes brightened. "Oh."

Harry said, "If Skeeter finds out, she will make a stink and the deal will be much harder." He released Tonks to shrug helplessly. "I didn't know how else to quiet Ginny without letting Skeeter know I knew she was there."

Tonks sniffed and wavered on her feet.

"Tonks, why can't you trust me?" he began, shaking her lightly, but she was limp. "Never mind. Let me mix you up some of the house remedy. Have a seat."

Harry placed Tonks beside Hermione and went off. When he returned with the potion, the room fell awkwardly silent. Harry tried very hard to avoid taking offense or growing suspicious, either of which would make him lose control.

Tonks accepted the glass, complaining, "But I was trying to get flat-on-my-face pissed."

"Would you like a shot of something instead?" Candide offered innocently.

Tonks gingerly rubbed her eyes. "No," she said, and drank down the glass.

Hermione sat forward. "I should get back."

"Why?" Harry asked. "You said everything was being taken care of. Why don't you stay?" Behind her, Harry spied the piles of opened presents. "I got a few games for Christmas, let's play one. We could all use an evening off. Especially Tonks, who has lost her senses."

Tonks stared sadly into her glass and did not argue.

They settled around a deep box and proceeded to unpack a complicated game board that unfolded with a charm into various combinations of terrain with a long, winding dirt path on it. Hermione read the instructions, "Gambling Castles is a game of resource strategy. You build houses and villages with the eventual goal of installing castles or casinos, depending upon whether you adopt a strategy of defending the gold you have or attracting more of it." She reached into the box. "I want to be the unicorn."

Tonks reached in and took out a pig. Peering closely at it, she said, "Funny, he's wearing a waistcoat with a little pocket watch on a chain."

Candide took it from her. "I'll be that one. That's about how I feel."

"I'll be the juggler then, and Harry can be the last." She took out a little figure of a bent over wizard leaning on a tall knobbly staff. She withdrew it momentarily to glance at the bottom before plonking it down before Harry. "The Wandering Sage."

"I don't feel much like a wandering sage," Harry said, adjusting his piece to his starting arrow. The figure saluted him with his staff and shuffled his feet.

Hermione rubbed her hands together gleefully. "This is great. I haven't had a chance to beat everyone at a game in months."

Candide, leaning sideways to reach all the way across the board said, "You think you're going to win that easily? First you have to know who else is playing."

- 888 -


Harry arrived in Belinda's flat promptly at noon. He slipped silently in under his cloak and tossed it off.

"See?" one of the underlings Harry had dealt with before said to the bulky masked figure standing between them. The two Harry knew stood round-shouldered, letting the larger man dominate even more than he would have otherwise.

"You really are Potter," came a raspy voice from the masked figure. The accent sounded West Country, making Harry believe he was not foreign. He fiddled with something in his wand hand, something glittery. Harry suspected it was a Portkey for a quick escape.

"It is. The same." Harry stated, sounding as bored as possible.

The figure nodded to the side. "They said you wanted to cut in, or something mad like that."

Harry tried for disdain. "I do, but not at their level."

Fingers flipped the shiny thing faster. "I don't buy it. Prove it."

Harry trusted that Snape was correct about Moody's killer acting with few accomplices. "I really killed Moody. I had a mate frame your man to get out again."

The flipping coin froze. Harry continued, "Come on. Word going around your organization must be that he didn't do it."

The figure's jaw moved behind the mask, folds of skin filled and shrank beneath it. The coin resumed turning, slowly. "All right then. I have something for you to do. Prove yourself and I'll take you to someone else."

"I want to meet your contact, now," Harry said. "No games."

"Not until you do something for me."

The two of them stared at each other. The underlings barely moved, waiting. Harry contemplated putting the man on the floor and threatening him. It would feel good to do that—lack of drills left him itching for some serious casting. He resisted the instinct. He may need an ally or two later, and he was not certain how many layers there were.

"I want to hear what it is first," Harry said. "If it's not worth my time, I don't want to bother."

A snort came from behind the mask. "Yeah, you would be the snooty type."

"Look at it this way: you need something done you don't have anyone to do, and I can skip a level or two when I succeed. I'm an impatient man."

"Yeah, all right. Wait here, then." He Disapparated and Harry was left to bide the time with the two others.

One of them studied his fingernails then said, "Must be nice."

The other said, "How do you do that trick? Apparating without a sound?"

Harry lied, not wanting them to suspect the depth of his skills, "It's easy. I send a Silencing Charm ahead of me."

The two thought that over. "Huh. Must be one hell of a charm."

Eventually the masked man returned with a loud pop. "I have a job for you. There're some things we want from a house in Harrogate."

Harry exhaled, glad it was not something he could not undo later, if needed. "What?"

"A tea set and a pillow."

Harry scratched his bristly upper lip. He wondered if he was being toyed with or insulted and how best to respond. Asking "why" was not going to be acceptable. Soldiers in gangs did not have the luxury of getting answers or understanding the larger picture.

Harry said, "There must be a catch. Otherwise someone else would already have done it."

"The catch is that the place has Aurors stopping by on patrol twenty four-seven. Here's the address and a description of the items. Bring them Sunday, same time." He waited while Harry perused the little slip of torn newspaper edge used for the note. The scrawled lines vanished as he read them. The man went on, now insulting for certain, "Unless His Highness needs more time."

"No. I'll bring them then."

Harry found his curiosity nearly too much to bear. He had been out of the office too long to know what was happening in Harrogate. He needed to go home and look at the atlas before casing the house. Mind leaping ahead with plans to avoid asking questions, he said, "Then I expect to meet with someone with some real power."

The man shrugged. "I can bring you to my contact. That's what I can do—I don't know anyone else."

"So you must be new to be so low in the organization. Is it worthwhile?"

The man shifted his shoulders back. "Good people always move up. And I get respect now when I'm out on the street."

"Not in that mask, you wouldn't."

The man snorted again. "I don't need the mask all the time. Power shows even without it."

"Right," Harry said.

"You have loads of power already. Why do you want in?"

Harry crumpled up the bit of blank paper and tossed it on the floor. "I want a different kind. The unlimited kind." As he said this, what was to be meaningless words to someone he needed to fool, a rush resonated up through his core. Distracted by this, he moved to toss his cloak over his head, but at the last moment saw the man's wand moving and stopped. He bundled up the cloak under his arm and exited through the door instead, shutting it quietly.

Greeted by the empty house in Shrewsthorpe, Harry found himself grateful for any task to occupy himself. In the library he pulled out the atlas and eventually located Harrogate—after shooing the drawing of a snoring dragon off it. He would have to take a broom from Kirkby Overblow, the closest place he knew from field work.

Thinking about field work gave him a pang of loss. He had psyched himself through his time in prison by dreaming of returning to previous activities, and it sent him more adrift to lack them. As tedious as patrol often was, he did miss it.

Well, Harry thought, he would have to reconsider things when Durumulna was straightened out. He closed the large atlas with a thud and Accioed his broom down from his room.

The weather alternated between bitter and pleasant depending upon the clouds. From high above the hills, the patches of sun glowed golden as they crept across the rippled earth. His strange task still felt insulting, but that made it simply a test he must pass, rather than anything to think about.

Harry located the town that matched the map and tilted the broom handle to plummet. He landed upon the unbroken roofline of the houses two streets away and scanned the area, keeping the broom hovering beside him. With the Obsfucation spell renewed because his invisibility cloak blew off his legs in the wind, Harry took his time observing. He fished a Telescoping Vision sweet out of his pocket and chewed it thoughtfully.

It was a good thing he kept a tight hold on his broomstick. As soon as the sweet took hold, filling his vision with the surging view of the brickwork of a distant house, he lost his balance and would have toppled backward off the roof otherwise. Grasping the broomstick in both hands, Harry carefully found his footing on the tiled roof peak and let his eyes wander wildly over the distant surfaces that threatened to bump his nose. He should have only eaten half a sweet, a nibble, or even just a lick.

Growing dizzy, he closed his eyes, but dared not leave them that way in such a vulnerable locaiton. He carefully traced the roofline opposite, down to the spotty soot stains left there by the rain. He squinted into the windows beyond, checking each in turn. The only one with open curtains revealed a stairway with a white banister and a pale blue runner. He estimated by the window count that it should be the correct house. His vision began to recover. Blinking rapidly, he spied a wavering like an invisibility cloak in the air above the next roof over, then lost it as his eyes returned to entirely to normal.

The world seemed ridiculously small now and he could not locate the disturbance. It was most likely someone watching the house. But from whose side, he did not know.

Harry slipped away to stash his broom back in his bedroom. Now that he knew the area, he could return without it. Cloaked, he slipped directly onto the stairs of the house in Harrogate and stood, listening. Voices droned somewhere, rooms away. Harry sneaked slowly up the thick runner, uneasy about even a muted squeak. In the master suite he found a distinctively lacy pillow propped neatly in a place of honor before an army of other pillows. It matched the description well enough, so wrestling a bit, he rolled it up and stuffed it in his sack. Then he had to spend time tugging the bedspread back to pristine.

Downstairs, in the back of the house, he found the kitchens. That put him closer to the voices, and he could hear Kerry Ann talking, intermittent with an older, complaining voice.

"Look, Ms. Auror, or Aurorette or whatever you call yourself . . . honestly, I can't believe they'd allow someone so young anything like the kind of responsibility you've clearly been handed . . ."

Harry sighed and began searching the bastion of stainless steel for a blue and white teapot. The idea that he might actually find the things he had been sent for brought his curiosity back full force. He slowed his search to listen more.

" . . . but I don't have even a lamb's lick of faith in the Ministry let alone a little girl, even one as tall as you. What happened to that quiet black man who was here last time?"

"He's out searching for your husband, madam-"

"And that other man, the red-headed one who's balding . . . they have potions for that you know. Merlin knows why any sensible wizard would not avail themselves of the magic available . . ."

Harry resumed searching more expediently, carefully opening the top part of a tall cupboard and standing on tip toe to look inside. Something bumped his leg and he jerked back, wand extended, heart thumping. But it was only a small grey cat. Undisturbed, it bumped its bony spine against his half-cloaked leg again, purring fiercely.

"I've a mind to write Minister Bones again. What do we have leadership for except to lead?"

The voice was starting to make Harry's nerves itch. He ducked low to search under the long metal counter, but that was full of mixing bowls.

"Drat it all! Where is that calendar of mine? Godfried has been missing for almost three weeks, Ms. Auror."

"You can call me Kerry Ann, really."

The cat batted at the cloak, catching it in arced claws.

"Hey!" Harry whispered. Not wanting to tug and risk damaging the precious thing, he had to unpluck the cat's paw one transparent, hooked claw at a time. "Shoo!"

Standing from freeing himself, Harry spotted a blue and white flowered tea set on a silver cart by the door.

"It wasn't like this in my day, I'll have you know. . ."

It was a tall teapot, chipped along the spout. Harry lifted the cloak to grab up a neat stack of delicate little cups and slip them into his deepest robe pocket. The creamer was fortunately empty, and this filled his other pocket by itself. The cat jumped up on a nearby counter and curiously cocked its head at him before washing a paw. Harry hefted the heavy teapot and, grabbing his cloak with his free hand, slipped away into the Dark Plane.

As he feet ground into the grey dirt, Harry put his hand on top of the pot and found the lid missing. He imagined it left behind, hovering just an instant, before falling to shatter on the floor. He stood there for just a breath before setting the pot down and slipping back into kitchen. The lid lay scattered in a thousand pieces, except for the rooster-figure handle. That survived whole. The grating voice had ceased and footsteps approached. Harry waved a Reparo and with a telltale rattle of his pockets, scooped up the lid, and slipped away again.

Harry tossed off the cloak and huffed at the crazing in the glaze from his sub-par repair. He pocketed the lid, shook out the half lobster-, half salamander-like creatures that had crawled into the teapot to investigate, and slipped away for home.

He placed the pillow and tea set on the floor just beside the door to his room. Unlike, say, a diamond necklace or something meaningful for a real thief, Harry felt no need to hide his haul. He studied the cracked lid again before returning it to his pocket.

The quiet house nearly did Harry in over the course of the afternoon. Given the copious opportunity his mind had to wander, he repeatedly reverted to imagining fighting Voldemort in that other place, and had to remind himself that was not the case here. Well, not exactly the case.

When an owl scratched at the window, Harry jumped up, eager to fetch any letter. This one, written on a torn paper bag corner, was from Ginny.

Monday the deal is done. We're celebrating at the Three Broomsticks tonight.

Harry smiled, savoring the thought that Skeeter would shortly be out of a job.

Humming to himself, he returned to shelving his Auror books in the library, alphabetically in a manner that implied he did not intend to touch them for a while. On the top shelf above that sat an interesting row dark magic books, antique ones in excellent condition that Snape had not been able to part with when he cleaned out upstairs. Harry hesitated, fingers gripping the spine of one titled Odyous Okkult. It stood out from the others by the black suede cover, tooled in silver.

Harry hesitated, remembering how he had been forced to cancel the Serpent Memory Charm against Malfoy. He worried that learning more spells he not dare use would only lead to more frustration. Curiosity won out and he pulled the book down. As usual for the era, the bookbinder was more skilled at binding than spelling or typesetting. As he entered the main hall to make himself comfortable while he read, Franklin dropped a letter on the side table with his name on it before taking off again. For a second, Harry imagined his taking the book down had triggered a letter from Snape. Shaking this notion off, Harry set the book aside and opened the letter.

Stop by my office for a visit this evening, if you would was all it said. Harry pocketed it and contemplated the book, not opening it, but running his finger in the curly, silver grooves. It was not clear what he wanted. He wanted to get even with a few people, that much he knew. But beyond that his plans were vague. For the first time his life lacked all structure and he did not know what to replace it with.

Harry opened the book to a random page in the middle and began paging forward.

Candide arrived home and Harry informed her of the visit to Hogwarts just as she settled on the couch with a heavy groan.

"You're implying I'm supposed to go along?"

"I can't leave you alone here." Harry said.

She raised an eyebrow. "What about that little knitting woman who wrestles dragons?"

"She was assigned by the Ministry because I was busy doing stuff for them."

Candide rubbed her rounded robe front. "I'm not taking the Floo again today. Maybe not again until after the birth."

Harry imagined that to be reasonable.

"I can stay here," she offered.

Harry shook his head. "You have your orders and I have mine."

"How do you know I have orders."

"Severus always gives you some," Harry said.

She sighed again. Harry said, "I can take you so you don't need the Floo. My friends are going to be in Hogsmeade tonight. Wouldn't you like to get out?"

She waved an ottoman over and propped her feet on it. Hands emerged out of it and untied her shoes and began a massage. She moved her feet around, making faces. "Going out wasn't high on my list, I'll confess. Watching people drink . . ." She stared into space a moment. "I could just about kill for a beer."

Harry broke out into a laugh and put his book away on the side table.

She sobered quickly, saying, "I wouldn't mind talking to Severus too. He's been out of sorts. I assume it's the impending third party, but I don't really know. He seemed to be overcompensating yesterday morning."

"Severus isn't always easy to figure out."

"At least he is always intriguing in his own strange way." She sat up and the cloth hands sank away. "Well, shall we go for dinner?"

"Brilliant plan." Harry felt the lid in his pocket. "Oh, before I forget, can you repair this better than I did?"

She puzzled over the lid, but shrugged and waved a repair spell at it. The pieces flew apart, hovered a moment above her hand, then with a tiny clatter, reformed without any sign of cracks.

"Thanks," Harry said, moving to take it back upstairs. "Put on something warm," he called over his shoulder.

"We're not going by broomstick, I hope," she called up as he went along the balcony.

"No, of course not," Harry replied, amused by her subsequent expression of relief.

When he came back down, he said, "We'll take my bike."

Harry's friends had not arrived at the pub yet, but Hagrid occupied the largest table in the corner, sitting with Hornisham.

"'Ello, 'Arry!" Hagrid roared. "Was that Sirius' bike I saw go by out there? Ah, he'd be pleased to know yer on 'er." He immediately grew soft as his eyes fell on Candide.

"And how is the little fella?" he asked, giving Candide a kind of pat, perhaps more an envelopment, on the belly.

"After that ride, ready to order his own drinks," Candide said, accepting the offered chair. "He'll have to settle for a hot cocoa, or three."

Harry shook hands with Hornisham, who had to bundle her knitting against her to free a hand. The silvery limbs of her project spilled onto the floor at her feet.

Hagrid returned to roar level. "We were jus' discussing the finer points of tusk care. 'ave a seat, Harry."

After dinner, Harry left his friends to head to the castle. He walked carefully over the treacherous frozen ruts that made up the road, but stopped suddenly before Honeydukes to stare at the boarded over windows. Around the boards, large splinters stood out of the frames in all directions, prickly looking. The scent of burnt chocolate drifted on the crisp air.

Harry stopped the next person walking along the other way. "What happened to Honeydukes?"

The witch pulled her stringy hair back and stopped to consider the shop in question. "Someone attacked it. Broad daylight. Cheeky bastards, they were." She sniffed loudly. "Eh." With that succinct assessment, she moved on.

Harry did not like this. His purpose in infiltrating Durumulna was to get proof that Percy was involved with them as well as a party to Moody's death. He also hoped to relieve Belinda of their machinations, believing her a victim. But the damaged shop solidified for him that more was at stake. The crooked shop sign reminded him of bright-eyed, school-day trips for sweets, and for once those other, darker, instincts had no opinion. Harry sensed them biding their time, though, and walked on.

The students milling in the Entrance Hall after dinner greeted Harry warmly and welcomed him home—he assumed out of prison, not so much back to Hogwarts, but either was fine.

A dash of flowing white and green joined him on the stairs. "Harry!" Suze Zepher said breathlessly. Harry slowed so she could catch her breath.

"Good thing they caught the real killer. I thought you might be stuck there for good and we'd have to break you out."

"Really, I'd have broken myself out before it came to that," he said, drawing a laugh from many listening in as they passed.

She followed him to the door to Snape's office. "What are you going to do now? You aren't an Auror."

"I'll find something."

"Coming to the next match then? We're playing Ravenclaw. They have a new Seeker this year—a visiting student from Morocco who is quite good."

"I do have lots more time now," Harry admitted.

She smiled awkwardly and clasped her hands behind her. "Well, if you can. I could use the support. He's going to be tough. He has this non-reg Algerian broom that the headmistress is letting him use anyway." She nodded at the door. "And despite that Professor Snape, you know, always expects a win."

"A challenge is good for you," Harry pronounced.

Her face wrinkled up. "You sound like an adult."

"Well," Harry waved his arm in apology. "I'm getting there, they tell me."

"Sad," she said, shifting her impossibly long white hair as she shook her head. She brightened nervously again. "Don't forget: Ravenclaw match."

"I won't."

Harry watched her walk away. That inconvenient instinct was assessing her potential loyalties with cold calculation. Harry knocked on the door to have something else to think about.

Snape sat with a student, whom he told to finish serving detention with Lupin. The student left with no little expression of relief. When the door clicked closed, Snape said, "I arranged rather a large number of detentions, it seems. Sit down, Harry."

Harry took the vacated desk. The seat was still warm.

Snape paced to the window, then back to his desk. "Still feeling better?" he asked.

"Me? I suppose," Harry said.

Snape's gaze came around before his head. "Not much of an answer."

Harry gestured at his seating. "I'm back in a desk. You're a teacher. What can I say?"

This drew a faint smile and the strategic instinct inside Harry smiled too. Snape said, "It's been interesting adjusting back. I had forgotten how much we've gained."

"On that note, you're being too nice at home," Harry said, further diverging from the topic.

"Truly a first."

"Really. You need to ease back into you again. Try for old you for a little while."

Snape sighed and stared at the ceiling briefly. "Candide doesn't suspect, does she?"

Harry shook his head. "You've been excused for it due to the kid's near arrival."

"A fine excuse," Snape stated. He leaned back against the desk. "And yours?"

"Do I need one?"

Snape stared him down. "Are you going to remain behind the line you crossed?"

"I'm trying." Harry considered that Snape would most definitely like to hear about his meeting with Durumulna. But he found no desire to mention it.

Snape continued studying him, saying, "I suppose until an opportunity to cross it presents itself, it will be difficult to determine, for certain, how successful you will be." He reached behind himself and handed over a folded parchment. Harry breathed in deeply and unfolded it halfway, stalling. Snape said, "I find it interesting the contrast between your treatment of him and your treatment of me."

"You aren't one of them," Harry said, holding his gaze on the letter, noticing it had no salutation, just a date. Harry reckoned that addressing it to Other Self might have felt too awkward.

"Is that the only difference?" Snape softly asked.

Harry did not look up, but he also did not read the letter. The closest lamp was on the desk, so all Harry had to do was tip the letter slightly to make it too dim to read. "There are lots of differences."

"Of the ones that matter."

"Lots of them matter," Harry said, not understanding this line of questioning and wanting to be difficult.

"I'm curious what they are." When Harry shrugged, Snape went on. "It matters greatly if it means the difference between your treating me as a guardian or an underling." After a pause: "It is not like you to cause others pain. Even those you do not like."

Harry remembered making the other Snape's Mark burn. At the time, he had not cared about the pain beyond its use as a tool. That other part of him had ruled over their interactions so he could not recall any real reasoning he may have had.

Snape asked, "If I had a Mark again, would our relationship revert to the one in that letter? That is the essence of my question."

Harry did not have an answer, so Snape went on. "I seem to recall that during the incident with the cane, when you convinced me against all better judgment to return to twenty years of age, that I did set you off, not dissimilar to the events described there."

Harry folded the letter up without reading it and held it in his hands. "It did," he agreed, remembering that with a similar distorted mix of regret and satisfaction.

"What is happening to you, Harry?" Snape asked. Level, calm—a tone that made it far easier to answer.

Harry closed his eyes and held them that way, seeing the shadows in the distance, a mirage, almost. "He left a vacancy behind."

"Voldemort did?"

"Yes." In a surge, Harry found the explanation bottled up again. By talking, he was giving away power, and doing that felt wildly unwise. But one glance at Snape looking down at him with level interest and perhaps affection let him keep talking. "I can feel his followers like I used to, but now I can also manipulate them. Easily. So easily, it's hard to avoid it."

"You, yourself, pushed Voldemort out of place," Snape stated. "You created this vacancy."

"I did," Harry agreed, feeling unseemly pleasure in remembering that moment when he carved Lockhart magically into pieces, removing the threat of him, the rivalry of him, it now felt like. Harry licked his lips.

Snape had to call his name twice to draw his attention to the present. "Would you rather be free of this influence?"

Harry glanced down at his hands. "I know I should want to."

"That wasn't the question."

Harry felt woozy. "I don't know." Then he felt fearful, worried that he had created an enemy out of Snape by revealing too much. The cords on the backs of his hands popped out. The letter crinkled.

"Harry," Snape said after a pause. "I do know what you are going through. Truly I do." When Harry's face expressed doubt, Snape went on, "Shall I prove it? You are thinking now that I may be untrustworthy because I know too much. That is correct, is it not?"

Harry looked up, beating down the wings of alarm trying to take flight in his chest.

"This is important, Harry. I want you to always remember that I am on your side, no matter what. I do not want you to ever doubt that. Do you understand me?"

Harry chewed on his lips, trying to reach equilibrium between his riled instincts.

"Harry?" Snape prompted.

"You've said that before," Harry said. "But you must have some limit."

"No," Snape said. "I never have if need be." He shifted to sit back on the desk after setting one of the lamps aside. "All I ask in return is that you trust me. Which should not be much to ask, really."

Before he could change his mind or find new resistance, Harry said, "I've decided to infiltrate Durumulna."

Snape considered that before replying, "You are uniquely well positioned to do so right now."

"That's what I thought," Harry said, feeling relieved to have confessed.

"Dangerous occupation, however."

"More so than before?" Harry asked with light sarcasm.

"The danger will perhaps not increase for you, true. But for others close to you, it will."

Harry dropped his gaze, considering that. He had acted on the opportunity, listening to that voice that assured him it would be so easy. "I'll know what they're up to. That will help."

Snape lightly shook his head. "People like this will not hesitate to use family as leverage, or as a target for retribution."

Harry bit his lip, feeling vaguely unwell. "I didn't intend to put anyone else at risk. I didn't think about it that way."

"Your power makes you too confident, I believe." Snape did not sound angry, surprisingly, just thoughtful. "If I strongly suggest that you do otherwise, what would be your response?"

"It's too late?"

Snape blinked and reached his long neck out forward. "You managed to get in over your head in a day?"

Flinching faintly, Harry said, "I'm good at that?"

Snape shook his stringy hair. "We will have to take even more precautions than we already are. Perhaps invite Minerva to help respell the house."

"You aren't angry?" Harry asked.

"I don't believe you are thinking quite clearly, Harry. Through no real fault of your own."

"You're going easy on me all of a sudden," Harry criticized, to take the sting out of being treated as if he were helpless.

Snape stepped forward and leaned on Harry's desk, bringing their noses to within inches. "Much larger things are at stake," he stated clearly.

Harry blinked at him, for a wild second imagining he had the wrong guardian yet again. This close, Harry could see the distinction between Snape's black irises and his pupils, the texture of his skin, as well as the sprinkling of grey in his brows.

Snape went on, continuing to speak slowly like one insisting upon being understood, "I am quite familiar with what you are becoming. And I am doing what is necessary to retain your trust in me. I am even telling you all this so as to encourage you to trust me additionally."

Harry had pressed back in his seat, and relaxed only when Snape pushed straight again, rocking the desk. He turned away and went to the window, where the grey sky no longer competed successfully with the lamp flames reflecting off the glass.

Undone, Harry asked, "What do you want me to do?"

"I want you to not lose yourself. This thing you harbor previously clashed with your mindset, causing you pain. An adult mind and greater power has allowed it to make a better home."

"Being trapped there in prison with all his followers didn't help," Harry said, remembering how good it felt to reach out for even that small cadre. Just as well he could not reach them now in quite that intimate a way.

"Your battle with Voldemort in that other place involved fighting for his followers, I now suspect. That is why they did not come to his aid, and he instead fled." It wasn't quite a question.

Snape did not turn as he spoke, so Harry had to do more than nod and that drew out another confession. "Yes. You wouldn't believe what that kind of powerful reach feels like."

Snape fell silent a while, his reflection in the window backlit by the lamps. "Back in that other place my counterpart is coping with a Harry just now arming with unimaginable power."

"So you have the same problem as him," Harry tried to quip, but it fell flat.

"No." Snape finally turned. "He has it worse. You are quite manageable as long as I have your trust."

Harry huffed. "We're talking about me as if I'm not here."

"That's because we are talking about the part of you that does not belong."

"I've had this other part a long time. It sorta is a part of me."

"I am hoping that is true only if you yield to it."

Harry swallowed and rubbed his hands along the well-worn edges of the desk. "And if not? Then what? We ask Dumbledore's painting what it suggests?" Despite his level voice, Harry's heart rate leap up as he asked this.

"Never that." With only the lamplight now, Snape's face fell in shadow. "We will think of something else," he stated with certainty. With a sigh, his tone shifted to the practical. "Tell Candide what you are doing with Durumulna. I do not want her in the dark about the dangers. And make sure she is always guarded as you are already doing. Take her to the Burrow if there is any question, it is nearly as safe as Hogwarts as long as Percy is not there."

Harry stared at his hands, feeling sorrowful. "I didn't mean to make trouble for your family, Severus."

"You are my family, Harry. Do not forget that."

"Still," Harry said, sliding out of the desk at what sounded like a parting tone from Snape. "I'm still sorry."

Snape returned to casually leaning back against his desk, exuding confidence of all things. "You may hold that thought. It is most likely a safe one for you."

Harry half grinned, half frowned. Snape did understand. "Still," he said again.

"Harry," Snape began, losing his level tone in exchange for a reassuring one. "I have always assumed that my past would come back to haunt any kind of life I attempted to establish."

"This isn't your past, it's mine."

"How so?" Snape returned sharply. "As I recall, the events leading up to your obtaining this rather inconvenient piece of Voldemort were not without my participation."

"True," Harry said, scrubbing his head. He felt even more confused and undone at remembering that.

"Do keep me informed, as well as Candide as necessary for her to be on alert for trouble. Not too much detail, however, as that puts her at yet more risk."

Harry cut him off. "You sound so casual about it."

Snape crossed his arms and rose up a bit. "I have seen you in action and am confident that you can protect her as long as you are aware what is happening. I will be home soon enough on leave as well."

"That will be nice," Harry said, imagining them all home together, which made him feel utterly himself.

"Be careful, Harry. That is paramount." Snape said, as Harry went to the door.

"I thought not losing myself was paramount," Harry said, teasing a bit.

"Same thing."

- 888 -


Back at the Leaky Cauldron, Harry was pulled out of his circling thoughts by Aaron, greeting him roughly just as he stepped inside. He pushed Harry back through the door out into the road.

"I want a word a second," Aaron insisted.

Harry was still gathering his bearings and nearly tripped on the uneven hard mud.

Ginny came out behind Aaron. "What are you doing?"

With false pleasantness, Aaron said, "Just having a chat with Harry. We'll be right there."

Harry glanced around the road, which was filling with interested bystanders. He found his balance and stepped closer so his friends would perhaps not talk so loudly. Ginny was demanding of Aaron, "I told you there was nothing to it. What are you doing?"

"This is between me and him," Aaron insisted.

Harry put up a hand to encourage Ginny to calm down. "It's all right. I'll talk to him."

Ginny said, "It's not just between the two of you. How does that work again?"

Harry saw Skeeter's photographer approaching, stealthily low but still on tip toe, so he walked rather oddly which made him immediately obvious. Harry closed his eyes to work up the right attitude. He grabbed up the front of Aaron's robes and tugged him off balance. Despite Aaron starting the physical battle, this caught him off guard and he swung an arm in a futile attempt to break Harry's grip.

"What do you think you're doing?" Harry demanded loudly. Close to Aaron's face he muttered quietly but affectionately. "There is nothing going on and now we both look like fools."

The photographer's flash went off and Harry let go. He smoothed Aaron's robes for him, even though Aaron batted his hand away, confusion in his movements.

Ginny covered her face in dismay, but recovered to pull her wand on the photographer, who squeaked and slipped back into the crowd. Trying not to grin, Harry patted Aaron's shoulder. "Let's settle this like civilized men: with a drinking contest."

Aaron straightened his collar with a rough tug. "You're on."

"Ugh," Ginny sighed, following them inside.

The crowd chuckled and muttered as it dispersed. Harry, happily envisioning yet more effective press for the next day, ordered a round for the table.

- 888 -


Snape returned home earlier than usual on Friday evening. He wished to assess Harry yet again, an instinctive need that would most likely not diminish any time soon. The house creaked faintly in the wind as he sorted his post.

"You're home," Harry's voice came from the doorway.

Snape turned, glad he had let his correspondence distract him from immediately seeking out his charge. It allowed events to fall into a normal, healthy pattern.

"Yes," Snape said, returning to the envelopes long enough to pull out the ones requiring attention that day. "Hogwarts, specifically Slytherin House, is quiet for a change."

"Maybe all those detentions . . ." Harry suggested.

"Something I'll have to remember," Snape distractedly returned. He tucked the letters at his side and gave Harry his full attention. "I couldn't help but notice you were in the papers today, tussling with an Auror Apprentice of all things. Anything I need worry about?"

Harry shook his head.

"You are certain?"

"Just more posing for my undercover operation."

This stopped Snape, who had not expected that answer. "You are doing well in that case. You have been converted from pristine hero to bad boy in record time."

Harry slipped his hands into his back pockets and shifted to a jaunty stance. "I'm sorta liking it. It's much less effort to maintain." He resembled his father standing that way.

Snape said, "And your next contact with them is?"

"Sunday."

"Do be careful. Perhaps I should remain here until you return."

Cheekily, Harry said, "Candide would like that, so certainly."

"Hm," Snape said, passing Harry on the way to the drawing room. "I knew you two would gang up on me eventually."

Harry followed. "Remember, not too nice."

Snape waved him off, still having difficulty hearing such an unlikely thing.

Harry waited in the doorway of the drawing room while Snape set out his writing set. Harry said, "Since you're home early, I'm going to meet up with Tonks early. I have some make up time to spend with her."

Snape began opening his mail. "Don't be late," he said automatically.

Disbelievingly, Harry retorted, "And that would be what time?"

Snape shook himself. "I'll expect you at breakfast."

"That I can work with."

Snape worked on correspondence until Candide returned from work. She leaned on the doorframe Harry had vacated earlier and said breathlessly, "That's definitely my last trip in the Floo . . ."

Snape forgot his letter and put the pen down on the blotter. "Do you need anything? A Healer, the Witchwife?"

She waved him off and set her well-worn bag of files down inside the door. "No, no. But I will if I try one more time."

Snape stood and took her things from her. "Ask Harry to take you. He has no trouble Apparating that distance if you do not mind Siding Along."

She rubbed her back while making a face. "I'll do that."

"Or I can simply insist he do so. Whichever."

She shook him off and headed for the seating area.

"Where is Harry this evening?" Candide asked as she draped herself across the couch in a position that was presumably more comfortable than it looked.

"Out," Snape replied. He pondered her there, considered making room beside her, but remembered Harry's words about behaving more coldly, and sat on the opposite couch. He took up the latest issue of Potion Portions Quarterly, even though he had no interest in anything except in getting reacquainted with his much missed home life. It pained him, but he managed a disinterested air for nearly ten minutes.

"When you are done with that, why don't you finish reading to me where you left off?"

Snape lowered the journal. He had no idea what she was referring to and clearly he should. "If you wish," he said to cover. As he pretended to finish that article, he glanced around at possible reading material. Certainly she did not mean one of the Witch Weekly or Enchanted Life magazines stacked under the side table.

Eventually, he had no choice but to try a bluff. He set the journal down and made a point of glancing around.

"It's just there, by the vase."

Snape had disregarded the little book sitting there right before him. He picked it up, grateful it had a bookmark, at least. He tried to stare properly at the action-packed cover but he should presumably be familiar with it already. Continuing the bluff, he said, "Ah the Fiery Friar," in a pleasant tone that betrayed none of the horror he felt at the prospect of reading such a questionable volume, even silently.

Snape stared at the words and felt a cold chill. This was a test. It had to be. She suspected the switch and was using this ruse of his counterpart reading aloud from this . . . this . . . novel . . . to snare him.

"We left off where the man is arranging to send a carriage to pick up the woman and her niece who is disguised as a maid," Candide prompted helpfully. She was clearly a better actor than he gave her credit for.

"Must we read this . . . particular . . . enchiridion?" he asked, using the only middle ground that did not give him away.

"You seemed to be enjoying it last time."

Snape stared at her. "You must have been mistaken."

She chuckled. "I'm pretty certain you read it. I'm willing to believe I mistook your lack of annoyance for enjoyment."

Snape turned to the book again. Perhaps this wasn't a trap, after all. Or, if it were, it was of a far more complicated variety. That his coarser counterpart fell for it too was small consolation.

Pulling the small book closer so he would not have to squint, Snape began, "The mule's breath clouded the still air around him as he pulled tight the last loop of the harness. The animal stood, stalwart, throughout, only flicking an ear occasionally to follow the sound of the rooks gathering in the hedgerows, lost in the dawn mist, all sound and no fury. . . ."



Author's Notes: I had three huge work deadlines in the last two months and as an independent contractor that basically means I've been living, sleeping, eating and breathing work. The last of those project deadlines was yesterday, so I finally got a chance to give the chapter some much needed attention. The betas were champs this round, given what a wreck the chapter was when I sent it to them. Special thanks to them!



Next Chapter: 41

Harry's attention was caught on the muddled diagrams in a book on hex deconstruction, so he did not notice Snape standing in the doorway until the other cleared his throat.

Harry said, "All the good books are gone."

Snape replied, "'Good' being a relative term in this instance."



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