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Chapter 42 — Out with the Old

"Thanks Harry," Candide said as she released his arm from Siding Along. The shuffling and tapping sounds of an awakening office drifted into the cold stairwell when she opened the door to the accountancy.

"No trouble, really," Harry assured her. "You're off at noon?"

Candide nodded and put her hand protectively around her coat-covered abdomen to maneuver through the door. 

Back down on the Alley, only a handful of shoppers plied the storefronts. Half the shops sat dormant, but activity could be seen through the window of Weasley Wizard Wheezes. Harry rapped on the window since the door was locked and the carved sign resting against the display case window read Shuttered ~ please try us again at a more holy hour.

Ginny pressed her nose to the glass of the door before working the locks, both mechanical and magical, to open it. "Are you coming along?" she said, right out.

"Er . . ."

Ginny waved behind her and scooped her cloak over her shoulders, pausing only to free her hair from her collar. "Freelander is buying the Daily Prophet this morning."

"I'd love to," Harry said, happy to have something to occupy his time.

Ginny was off before he could say more, muttering, "Frankly, we may need more security."

When Harry and Ginny rounded the corner of the Prophet's blocky building, they came upon Freelander and his wife standing outside the gold and glass doors surrounded by a small phalanx of solicitors wearing serious faces along with their tweed.

"Mr. Potter," Freelander greeted Harry warmly, accompanied by a hearty handshake that made Harry have to hide a surprised wince. As soon as he released Harry, Freelander's attention shifted immediately back to the trophy-like doors before them.

"Shall we gentlemen? And ladies . . . of course." 

Inside the bright room, they stopped in the center of the well-worn wooden floor and took in the activity at the surrounding array of wickets and counters. Gradually, the office rattle, hooting owls, and voices shouting to those hard of hearing died out and attention turned to the waiting group. 

A section of the ceiling cracked open and a lift floated down beyond the glass wall before them. A round man on rapidly moving legs approached as soon as the lift touched down. He shooed the desk clerks aside and opened a door, wicket and all, in the wall. 

"Lord Freelander, it is a pleasure . . ." the man gushed in a voice pitched too high for a grown man, making him sound like a performer or a ventriloquist. Freelander introduced him as Pierrepont Walpole, the newspaper's owner. This introduction was followed by that of the Editor in Chief, Barnabas Cuffe, whose long countenance did not imply he was pleased with events. Three harried assistants crowded him, arms full.

"And you brought . . . quite a crew here . . ." Walpole said to Freelander, falling uncertain as his eyes counted the lawyers and then landed on Harry. "Mr. Potter," the man said, reaching into the group to single Harry out for a handshake. His hands were small and clammy and heavily stained with ink.

Walpole adjusted his glasses and waved a writing desk out of the parquet floor. "Shall we dispense with the formalities, then, and retire to my office for tea?" Scrambling suddenly, he pulled out a pocket watch, then checked one of the many wall clocks. "Ah, still time to make a Lazyeye Monday Edition. It will have to do."

One of the less dour solicitors sensed that he should bring forth papers. A stack of exceedingly long parchments were draped over the desk to unroll to the floor and half way to the entrance. Around them, the clerks and staff were gathering at the windows or kneeling on their desks to hear over the glass wall.

With a serial flourish of long quills the contracts were completed. In the meantime, the lift had made two more trips from the ceiling and this time Harry spotted Skeeter's tight golden curls in the crowd. He waited with rising anticipation as her head bobbed closer, moving back and forth impatiently when the bodies thickened and slowed.

"Well!" Skeeter said, voice as sharp as the snap of her high heels on the floor. "What have we here?"

Skeeter had been barreling straight for Harry, but Freelander turned his bulky self and intercepted her. He tugged a folded paper from his breast pocket and presented it to her with a slight bow, just as Skeeter came to a stop. He did not let go of it, however, as she took hold and tugged.

"We have had a change in management, as you are perhaps aware . . . or perhaps not?" Freelander drawled. Then he raised his voice over the drone of gossip flowing around the hall. "And I'm sure you are all eager to learn what other changes we will be making. As far as redundancies are concerned, please all rest assured that nearly everything and everyone will be remaining the same. We have just one." And with that he released the paper, which moments before Skeeter had been battling for, but now made a distasteful face as she gained full control of it.

Skeeter snapped open the letter and with a glance over it, crushed it down. "On what grounds?"

"Oh, Ms. Skeeter, let's not make this more tedious than is already required. You concocted stories about me, whole cloth, and, most astoundedly of all, expected to be immune to any negative outcome as a result."

Skeeter adjusted her jeweled glasses and leaned closer to Freelander. "I did not make up a single thing I wrote. I had the very letters you sent. I had them verified, in fact."

"And these letters would be, where?" he asked politely. "You refused to produce them for my legal team, as requested." Freelander began putting his things away, clearly dismissing Skeeter. "Until you do so, there is nothing to discuss, I'm afraid." He sounded bored now, which only made Skeeter's face redden.

"I DID have them," she insisted weakly. Harry was glad she did not glance at him, which meant she did not suspect him.

Walpole gestured at someone in the distance, then said to Skeeter, "You'll have to clear out your office."

Skeeter appeared far more prepared to do battle than pack boxes. She glared down domineeringly at the former owner, but he simply shrugged in return. A large figure rose up in the far corner beyond the windows. It brushed off what appeared to be straw and lumbered toward them. Harry had not imagined a half troll might exist but this character did a good impression of one. He wasn't as large as Hagrid, but he was ten times as ugly and he lightly hefted a massive granite club. Everyone turned to watch him approach.

"Thug, take Ms. Skeeter to her office. She's to pack it up," Walpole said.

The half-Troll gave no indication he understood, but he moved aside to let Skeeter pass. Freelander gestured surreptitiously with his chin in the same direction and Harry stepped forward. "I'll come along."

Skeeter's sideways glances evaluated Harry as they walked in the vibrating wake of the half-troll's footsteps. The crowd parted for them as they approached the lift, scooting backward, gazes wide and curious.

The troll took up most of the lift platform. He stood in the very center, club resting on the marble floor.

Skeeter leaned around the troll's rag-wrapped belly and said, "I can't figure out how you're involved in this, but there must be a connection."

They were almost to the ceiling now. The floor looked much farther down than the ceiling appeared from below. Ginny waved up at Harry, even though Freelander's wife was trying to get her attention.

Harry waited until the channel of the lift surrounded them to ask, "Why would I have anything to do with this?"

"You've got your fingers in everywhere from what I hear," she said, then leaned farther over. "Care to comment?"

Harry laughed. "And you'll print my comment where?"

Skeeter huffed. The troll shifted from foot to foot, making the lift rattle unnervingly in the shaft. Finally the door opened and Skeeter stalked out, rushing, Harry thought, to get inside her office and lock them out. But she left the door open behind her. Harry remained in the corridor, looking in. He did not like the masks any better in full light.

"What are those?" Harry asked.

"The masks? If I had my way, my former colleagues," she quipped without stopping what she was doing.

The troll lumbered off to a cupboard down the corridor and rummaged inside it with giant, deliberate movements.

Harry laughed. "What do you do to your enemies if you treat your fellow journalists like that?"

Skeeter stood straight from stacking things. "My enemies are my most prized and lucrative possessions. My colleagues just get in my way."

"I actually can understand that," Harry said. He leaned on the doorframe and watched her work.

"You're not going to help?" she criticized.

"You don't want me to." 

Upon further reflection, she said, "Yeah, you're right about that."

When all the boxes had been heaved out, ten at a time by the troll, and nothing remained but scraps and broken things, Harry stepped inside. The office still felt cursed, despite the masks having been carted off in an iron trunk that had been chained closed for good measure. He wandered slowly around the bare shelves, trying to determine what bothered him so. He stopped and backed up below the clock, which had 27 hands on it, all in different colors. "Leaving that for your colleague?" Harry suggestively asked.

Skeeter used a hand to primp her hair. "Sure. Why?

"It's cursed," Harry said.

"Of course it's cursed. It's a World Time Deadline Clock. I challenge you to find me one that's not cursed." She propped her hands on her narrow hips, thumbs forward. "What's your game, Potter."

"I wanted to make sure you removed everything dangerous."

"That's not what I meant." She sounded hard now, like a teacher.

"Whatever it is, I'd hardly tell you, of all people."

She exhaled, looking him up and down, enticing now. "I'd pay well."

Harry's darker instincts screamed at him to string her along, to leave open the possibility of using her later. "I'll think about it."

Strangely, he sensed that she saw through his answer. She strode to the door and waved an extinguishing hex at the one remaining lamp. She primped her hair and touched up her lipstick in the reflection of the glass in the office door. "Time for me to make my final hysterical scene before departing."

"You are one to talk about games," Harry commented as they re-entered the lift. The troll must have grown weary because he dragged his club now, and it rumbled deafeningly on the floor, forcing them to shout.

They rode down in silence until just before they touched down when Skeeter said, "As long as you can remain an enemy, dear Harry Potter, we can continue to be friends." With that, she screwed up her shoulders and veritably marched across the floor, taller all of a sudden and well visible to all the flash lamps going off, homing in on her as she closed in on the old and new management still chatting in the middle of the floor.

Someone touched Harry on the arm, making him jump. Ginny said, "Guess what?" Her face glowed with raw intensity as she went on. "Beatrice wants me to be her assistant here at the Prophet!"

"That's great, Ginny!" Harry said, suddenly removed from his well of troubles. "What are your brothers going to say?"

"Hopefully a lot. I've been working for Knuts over there, and do you think they ever say, "good job, Ginny" or "good to have you here, Ginny", no . . ." Her face took on annoyance, but it slid back into a grin as she watched the people milling in the Prophet's service hall. "This is going to be fun. A ton of work, but fun," she said, rubbing her hands together. Skeeter had just giving up her loud arguing and was marching out. "I'd better go," Ginny said, and with a flutter of her short cloak, wove back into the crowd.

Harry watched Freelander and Beatrice introducing themselves to a few of the staff. Beatrice took Ginny aside for a chat involving lots of arm motion. A little man floating a cart full of boxes stopped upon seeing Harry there and stared at him sideways along his crooked nose.

"Hm," he grunted and resumed directing the cart, mumbling as he passed, "Everything's changing, everything's changing."

"It is," Harry echoed to no one in particular.

The staff had thinned out and returned to work, quieter and more diligent than when they had been interrupted that morning. Harry made his goodbyes to Lord Freelander and the others and strode out with purpose, but standing on the pavement outside he realized he had no where in particular he needed to be. Harry could go home and read. Or he could take himself for a run and a long flight. Neither of these sounded terribly appealing. Few of his friends would be home during the day, just Elizabeth, who should still be home between terms.

Elizabeth answered the door in a yellow dressing gown and fuzzy white slippers. "Harry!" she greeted him. She clasped her dressing gown closed over her pyjamas and said, "I didn't expect you to call. Hang on, let me get something on. Have a seat."

She was off into her bedroom, leaving Harry to ponder calculatingly how very much he was trusted. He was still in that spot when she returned. "Really, sit down," she admonished, pointing at one overstuffed chair while taking the other. "How are you doing? You getting over being locked up? Have you given the Ministry of Magic hell for what happened?"

Harry had opened his mouth at each of these, but only got a chance to speak at the end. "Doing all right," he said, finding himself with little to say. He was happier to see her than he expected to be. Her hair was mussed and down and falling around her oversized pullover.

"The Ministry of Magic strikes me as a frighteningly arcane bureaucracy," she pronounced, sitting back and crossing her arms. Her overly exacting attitude came across differently when it was in Harry's own defense. "I'm glad you're out, now. Any prison sounds awful. I can't imagine a magical one."

"It wasn't that bad," Harry said.

She leaned over the side of her chair to pick up a Witch Weekly

Harry commented, "I didn't know you read that."

She leaned over to flip through the magazine, treating the pages with more care than most would. "I've been trying to be more like a real witch." She had flipped all the way through and started again from the beginning, letting the pages flap out from under her thumb more slowly this time.

"Is it working?" Harry asked.

She shook her tresses, making them hide her bent face. "Mostly I just laugh at this stuff. Which is funny because as a girl I would have killed to do more of it. Imagine! A Charm to do your hair any way you like and change the color of your dress." She stood and set the magazine in Harry's lap. "They did an article about the prison you were in." Then she loped off to the kitchenette, saying, "I skipped breakie and need some nosh. And I'll make tea," she added, holding up her wand in a pose of casual victory.

Harry skimmed the article, not really reading it, but taking in the animated diagrams showing the layout of the cell blocks. The Extremely Dangerous Criminal Block was not far from the warden's office. Harry wished a chance had come up to visit Lockhart/Voldemort while he was there, and he wondered if the warden might still be open to that earlier tour offer. Harry also would not mind a chance to stick his tongue out at Lucius Malfoy one more time. He was grinning at this thought when Elizabeth emerged with a tray.

"I'm still bollocks at Heating Charms," she said. "Sorry it took so long. I keep meaning to find a tutor for wand waving, but term is starting in another week so it won't be until after that's over."

"Want me to show you?" Harry asked.

"I think I'd be such a terrible student I would bore you to tears." But she sat forward on her chair, belying her answer.

Harry did not think spending more time with her would bore him at all. And he had nothing else to do.

"Here, get out your wand. If you are going to be a witch there are a few spells you just have to know."

- 888 -

Harry's week dragged by. Evenings he spent hoping Tonks would find time for him, but she managed to slip in only once for a few hours and she was too tired to do anything but nap. Mornings, after Harry dropped Candide at work, he spent tutoring Elizabeth. Somewhere between getting away from her parents and going to school she had lost the harder edge to her critical personality and he rather enjoyed her company. He steadfastly refused to consider returning to training, despite the painful boredom of his afternoons and an ongoing desire to return to normalcy. He heard nothing from Durumulna and considered visiting Belinda's flat a number of times, but he had been specifically instructed to wait for them and he did want to seem the diligent type about following orders, so he held off. He sent Belinda an owl at her office, which generated a terse, plain reply that told him nothing.

Harry began to feel envious of his friends who had regular things to occupy their days. Elizabeth was soon returning to classes. Ginny worked all day and evenings even at her new job, growing quickly ragged from the long hours but no less enthusiastic. Ron was free evenings, but he mostly talked about his job, which did not improve Harry's outlook. When an owl arrived from Hermione inviting him for a visit, he dropped it on the floor and left it there in his rush to leave.

Harry arrived in a cupboard on Hermione's corridor and listened at the door with cupped hands before opening it a crack to check that the way was clear. She called out immediately in response to the knock on her door.

"You're here already!" Hermione exclaimed, flipping back the hair that had fallen loose from the clip on the back of her head. She pushed back from her desk and came around to greet him. "That's right, you don't have to bother with the Floo . . ." she said, remembering.

Harry touched his finger to his lips, but Hermione rolled her eyes and hugged him.

The sun poured generously into the room at this hour of the day, making it feel less like Hogwarts than Harry remembered.  Hermione asked, "How are you adjusting to life outside prison? Everything all right?"

He gestured at her uncharacteristically disarrayed office. "About the same as you're adjusting to life in this prison," he teased.

"Yeah," she huffed, surveying the scene. "Come on, I'll skip lunch and let's go for a walk. I need a change of scenery before I tackle another essay that asserts that hexes are a special class of charms."

"They are if you do them right," Harry jested, garnering another friendly chastisement.

The corridors were crowded with clumps of chattering students, who quieted and turned to greet them or just stared in surprise. Harry had once hoped that by this time in his life, he would be treated more or less normally, but that was not to be.

One of the Creavy brothers broke from a group huddled in a window alcove and kept in pace with them. "Wotcher, Harry!"

"Hello Dennis, studying hard?" When Dennis stretched his face disturbingly. Harry explained secretively, "I have to keep up appearances for Professor Granger here."

"Oh, good. Thought you meant that. Swotting would cut into my training too much. I'm determined to make Seeker next year."

"Speaking of which, what do you think of the Ravenclaw Seeker?" Harry asked, mostly to make conversation as they followed along with the flow down the staircases.

"Tanzir, you mean?" Dennis said. "He looked pretty good in their first game." He shrugged. "But everyone looks good playing Hufflepuff."

Hermione leaned closer as they rounded the landing to say, "If they'd pay as much attention to lectures as they do at the matches ..  ."

Dennis stopped suddenly and Harry nearly ran him over. Dennis was used to this and stepped quickly aside, pointing. "He's over there."

Harry turned and found the aforementioned boy hanging onto the banister, rocking back and forth while chatting with another Ravenclaw. He was a wisp of a boy with bowl-cropped black hair. Perhaps sensing the attention, he turned, displaying chiseled features. He pushed himself straight as recognition softened his face.

Harry stepped over and introduced himself. The boy closed his hanging-open mouth, and responded, "My name is Aylal, How are you? Pleased to meet you," like practiced phrases.

Hermione leaned in and said, "His French is better."

Upon which, Harry received a string of French that he halted by holding up his hands. "My only time in France was in prison, and I didn't pick up much there."

The boy's face fell and he laughed nervously. "But you are out, now."

Looking for a better topic, Harry said, "I'm going to come watch your match against Slytherin."

"But no pressure," Hermione quipped.

"I am honored," the boy proclaimed, beaming.

Other students making their way to lunch stopped to listen in. Harry made his goodbyes because they were blocking the staircase.

Dennis slithered in between them when they continued on. "Who're your Galleons on, Harry?" he whispered.

Harry stopped, trying to figure out a reply, but Hermione sent her student off with a sharp wave of her hand. "No gambling on school grounds." 

Dennis laughed as he slipped off. "Shouldn't have Quidditch then."

"He has a point," Harry conceded.

Hermione tugged Harry off the landing before he could take the next set of stairs down. "I remember that I wanted you to show me something." She started back upward.

"I thought you wanted a change of scenery."

"The library at lunchtime is a change of scenery . . . no students."

Madame Pince must have already gone to the Great Hall because the library was completely unoccupied. Hermione headed straight for the gate to the restricted section. "Speaking of Ravenclaw, I want you to show me her book."

Harry followed Hermione in, turning to make certain the gate latched properly behind them. The stacks sat in a waiting silence, reminding Harry of another library and another Hermione. He lowered his voice. "I don't know if it will let me open it with you here, you know."

"Give it a try." She stopped beside the podium against the rear wall, hanging on the edge of it with her fingertips.

Harry opened the grate in the wall, and the book lay inside as it always did, sporting a light coating of dust. Hermione narrated while Harry carefully removed it. "Amazing to think all these centuries, that's been sitting there. The actual notes of the Founders . . ."

The book's stone covers rattled and ground together and Hermione fell silent. "If that's all it takes to quiet Professor Granger . . ." Harry teased.

"Hey!" she whispered harshly, "You know how hard it is to fill a double class period sometimes?"

"I remember how hard it was to sit through a double class period . . ."

Harry tried to open the book, but the covers would not budge, the entire thing a single block of stone. "It doesn't like you," Harry said.

Hermione moved in beside Harry, facing the book. "Why not?"

Harry shrugged and gestured for her to move away instead. He took on an attitude of superior calm. The restricted section fell quieter yet; every last rustle and creak ceased. He imagined facing down the nastiest of creatures from the Dark Plane, making it back down and retreat, head bowed.

Harry touched the cover and lifted with his thumb. It released and let him heft it open to reveal the warning letter. Hermione, crouching, slipped closer to peak around at it from behind Harry. The book vibrated, and Harry again forced it to submit and still.

"Wow." Hermione whispered as she read, "Knowledge should never be mistaken for learning, information, or insight. Oh," she said with passion. "This is amazing. . . . take only pure knowledge away. Yes, yes, I will." she said, sounding childishly excited. "Can you turn the page?"

Harry tried to, but the book rumbled. "Back up," he said, determined, but not wanting Hermione in harm's way. Slowly, he reached up and rested his left hand on the edge of the front cover, not so much to hold it open, which he could not physically do, but to keep track of it. With his other hand, he delicately lifted the corner of the next page. The book shook on the lectern, which resonated and amplified the sound. But Harry, though sheer force of will, compelled the book to remain open. Hermione's hand wrapped around his arm, gripping tighter as the book sang louder in a rumble through the wood of the lectern. 

"Harry, maybe you shouldn't," Hermione shouted over the noise.

Harry did not want to lose this battle. He did not want to retreat. He pressed his will harder, and reached for the next page, just to see if he could turn it. The vibration eased but now smoke swept out from between the page edges.

"Harry!" She shook his arm back and forth now. "Don't make it destroy itself. Let it go!"

Harry calmly pulled his hands clear and reluctantly gave in. The book slammed closed, covers flying vertical before tilting neatly and thundering down onto the lectern and falling still as stone once again.

Hermione's pent up breath came out in a wheeze, and she still held Harry's sleeve for support. "You were right. It doesn't want me to see it, I guess." 

"It might not be so happy with me any longer, either" Harry said.

"Well, that'd be a shame, Harry. I'm sorry for asking."

Harry shrugged. "I've learned loads of spells from it already." He tossed a shoulder, which pulled against her grip on his robes. "Go out beyond the gate and I'll put it away."

"You're sure you'll be okay left alone with it? McGonagall mentioned what it has done in the past."

"Yeah," he replied, sounding amused, but it was to mask his uncertainty. Her footsteps retreated, the gate squeaked up the scale then down, and finally the latch fell into place again. 

Harry stared down at the chiseled cover of the book, at each of the house seals in turn. Part of him suspected that it wasn't Hermione that was entirely the trouble. But like the letter from the other Snape, he did not want to find out for certain what was inside, so he left it a mystery. Calmly, gathering a certainty of power to compel his actions, he lifted the book and put it away.

Both of them wandering in their own thoughts, he and Hermione walked together down to the Entrance Hall. The dull crowd-roar of lunchtime in the Great Hall washed like a balm around their mood, and Harry opened the castle's front door with extra grace and bowed Hermione out ahead of him. 

The lawn lay in a mat of mostly dead tangle. Coarse snow hugged the low spots and cowered under the benches. Harry led the way around to the rose garden and warmed a bench for them to sit on. Hermione breathed into her mittens and surveyed the winter ruin of the plants.

Harry took his mind away from what happened in the library and said, "Has there been any trouble with crystal potions here at all?"

Hermione sat back on her mittened hands. "You mean that mood altering stuff? Haven't seen it yet."

"Keep an eye out."

She crossed her legs and bounced her foot, looking more the student than the professor. "What am I looking for?"

"Students going out of their head."

"Like that doesn't happen normally."

Harry smiled. "This is farther out than normal."

"You've seen it?" When Harry nodded, she asked, "Tried it?"

"No," Harry replied, laughing lightly. "I have a hard enough time with the realities I already have access to."

They sat quietly for long minutes. A mistle thrush worked its way from one bare branch to another, browsing for dried berries. 

Hermione patted Harry's leg with her broad mittened hand. "How are you doing, Harry?"

"I've been better," Harry said, and immediately felt a pit open beneath him. His keener senses went on alert against further confessions.

"At least I got an honest answer. Still mad at the Ministry?"

Harry shook his head. "I don't care about the Ministry."

"Oh," she replied. "That's not like you."

Harry sighed. He remembered that other place and wondered what they were all doing there, whether they had succeeded in collecting any more Horcruxes and whether that Harry had obtained the power his friends were going to arrange for him. He wondered how long it would take for him to reach full power, and whether he should risk going back to test himself against himself, just for fun.

"Harry?" Hermione prompted. She was sitting forward to better look at his face.


"You're not having nightmares or anything from prison, or anything like that are you?"

"No," he answered in a tone meant to calm her concerns.

After another gap, she asked, "Are you going back to the Auror program?"

"When I feel like it," he said, and liked the sound of that.

She tugged her mittens up one at a time and tucked them into her sleeves. "Aren't you bored?"

"Terribly. But I'm getting ideas."

"Oh, that's not good," she said, snorting faintly.

Inside, he parted ways with himself, half was insulted and angry and half leapt back to the past, to being much better understood. He tilted his head back and stared at the flat grey sky. "I don't know if it is or not."

"Harry, you're really worrying me."

Her turned to look at her and watched her studying his eyes, like many of his old friends did, unfamiliar with their pale color, expecting them to always be they way they used to.

Part of him wanted to tell her he wasn't the same and that he was a bit worried about that, but he did not have access to his faculties of speech to say it, so he simply stared at her. He broke their locked gazes by standing up. "You have class, don't you?"

She stood too and took his arms. "Harry?" She sounded far younger, fearful for him.

He needed to take care of that. He took her shoulders in turn. "It's fine. I'm just working through some things." All true.

"I don't know." She glanced up at the school. A bell rang inside just as she did. "Are you going to be home this weekend?" At his nod, she said, "I'll come for a visit, all right? I'm not sure when, but I will. Take care until then, all right?"

She started to go, but waited with a hand on his arm for him to nod before actually doing so. When she turned back before reaching the doors, the rose garden stood empty, the only movement a dead rose branch, set rocking by the thrush landing upon it.

- 888 -

That evening after dinner, Hermione knocked on the door to the Defense Against the Dark Arts Office. Footsteps approached before Professor Snape jerked open the door. 

"Ms. Granger," he said, in his usual dismissive tone before contrastingly gesturing for her to enter.

Hermione frowned at finding a student sitting by the window, writing diligently by the light from a lamp perched on the sill. She recognized Mthunzi, shaking his hand out between lines, face obscured by hair so tangled it may have been intended as one of those Caribbean hair styles.

"I wanted to talk to you about a student, in private," Hermione said to Snape when she noticed his questioning glance.

Snape diverted over to the window and, without ceremony, slid the parchment out from under his detainee's hands, examined it, and stuffed it back in place, crinkling it. "Two more formulas and you are finished for now."

The boy positively glowed at this news, white teeth well displayed, prompting a dark look from Snape who said, "But if I catch you dueling one more time . . . "

"But, I made sure this time it was someone two years head of me," the rhythmic yet mousey voice came back. 

"I don't care if I catch you dueling one of the Seventh-Year Prefects, I will send you home."

Mthunzi frowned expressively and bent back to his task. Snape shook his head. And as the boy handed him his parchment, Snape gave him a searingly stern glare that sent him scurrying out of the office.

After the door closed, Snape spent a moment checking the parchment. "He'll be school champion by the end of the year," Snape muttered, dropping the lines into the bin beside the desk.

Hermione grinned faintly. "And that's a problem?"

Snape took a seat and said, "Since he isn't in Slytherin, that is most a definitely a problem." He pushed the things directly in front of him aside to make room to steeple his hands. "You were saying something about a student . . . ?"

Hermione began pulling the desk over, only to run into the straight backed chair Snape hovered over from the other wall. She dropped the desk with a clunk, and took the chair, unable to find a place for her hands. "It's about Harry, actually." And with that her stomach flipped strangely.

She waited, but Snape gave no reaction to her statement. "Is he all right?" she asked.

Snape ran a rather complex privacy spell Hermione had never managed to get right, and returned his wand to his pocket. She hoped that meant he was going to say something, but he remained quiet, studying his fingers. 

Finally, Snape said, "Harry is not well."

Hermione dropped her head. Even though it felt twice as heavy as usual, she lifted it again. "He didn't seem quite himself. Prison seems to have . . . I don't know . . ."

Snape explained, "It wasn't prison exactly. It was close exposure to Voldemort's servants. Harry's connection to them continues to deepen." His eyes moved as if he read something out of the air. "And I fear . . ." He stopped, breathed deeply. Starting again, he said, "Harry disposed of Voldemort's power in the Dark Plane. And he keeps . . . crossing . . . through that place."

Hermione's chest froze from the inside out. "You think he's picking up more of Voldemort?" The thought made the rest of her mind seize up, helpless.

Snape's gaze was dangerously level. "I'm only informing you of my suspicions because I knew once you suspected something you would not let it drop. That, and, once properly informed, I trust you will tell no one else," he said, sustaining the "S". He added, "I also expect that you can assist with him."

"Doing what?" she blurted, too discombobulated to imagine anything at all useful.

"My research into possible solutions has turned up nothing that does not entail additional extreme risk, to all involved. I would appreciate assistance with said research. I can give you a list of sources I have not yet checked or that deserve a second reading." Snape rubbed his hair back, appearing exhausted. His voice lowered to almost inaudible. "My main new concern right now is that Harry does not appear to be fighting this other self any longer."

"The Muggles have treatments for that."

"It's not like that." Snape waved his hand dismissively. "Perhaps just as well he is psychologically sound as far as I can discern." Once he had started talking, Snape seemed in need in of fully unburdening himself.  He gazed pointedly at Hermione and said, "Just so you understand the situation . . . I am going to inform Harry that we spoke of this. My primary goal right now is to remain steadfastly on his side, at all costs. I hope you will do the same. I will be easier for you, since you always have been."

Hermione gathered her scattered thoughts long enough to say, "But . . . you leave him home alone with Candide?"

Snape pushed to his feet. "Harry isn't dangerous. He just isn't himself. And the self that isn't him isn't one I particularly want to see more of."

"I would say not," Hermione blurted. She glanced around the room, finding it alien. Nothing was in the right place: the papers on the desk, the lamp on the window ledge, the desk abandoned a few feet away.

Snape was speaking. "Whenever you see Harry, try to remind him what he used to be. How he used to think. What he valued. Previously, he was incorruptible. That core of him seems to be smothered of late. It takes a lot with it when it goes."

Hermione sat rigid, watching him speak, observing everything from outside herself. She remembered the rose garden, how distant Harry became without warning and even how differently he moved. "I'll do that." She swallowed hard. "I told him I'd come for a visit. I was going to bring Vishnu along."

Snape nodded. "Good. Do try not to look as panicked as you do now. That won't do," he criticized. "Harry is still Harry." He crossed his arms and huffed. "But we are losing him, I fear. Something will need to be done. I just have no idea right now what in Merlin's Realm it may be."

Hermione's thoughts found a landing spot. "Do you know what spell he used to cut Voldemort's magic out of Gilderoy Lockhart? Did you see it?"

Snape nodded. "Harry begged me, in fact, to let him use that spell on himself when he realized what he was, realized that he was the last vessel for the Dark Lord. I would not allow him to attempt it."

Hermione swallowed hard again, wondering if that was the right decision now. 

Snape answered her unvoiced question, saying, "In the first place, I could not imagine it would succeed, given that he would have to execute it on himself, using magic to remove his own magic, while simultaneously needing that magic to complete the spell. In the second place, failure would have been catastrophic, like the spells Riddle used to cut himself up to achieve immortality. The ones that made him as truly evil as he was. The risk was too great, given the powers Harry already had then, let alone the ones he has now."

Snape leaned back against his desk, deflated. "I was not intending to tell you so much all at once. I did not expect you to notice for a while yet. That concerns me too."

Hermione wanted to reassure him."I could have excused it on a lot of things. But he admitted he wasn't doing well when I asked."

Snape rose up at this. "That's reassuring. Do let me know when he begins to deny to you that anything at all is wrong."

"I will. I definitely will." She stood and glanced sadly around the office again, wishing she did not know what she did and knowing it would be tied to this place from now on. "Do you think Harry would be better off back in his apprenticeship, or not?" she asked.

"I think he would be better off," Snape replied, sorting through the paperwork stacked on his desk. "For one thing it would occupy him. He has been using his copious spare time to get into trouble, doing things outside his purview best left to someone else."

"That sounds like Harry," Hermione said.

- 888 -

Ginny held fast to her broomstick when a gust came up, billowing her cloak like a sail and trying to spin her around upside down. Beneath her, a low fog smeared the lights of a town. Chains of twin eyes of white and red snaked along a major roadway. Away from the city lights, the land sank away into distant blackness, scattered with houselights like outposts.

Every night that week had been a late one. Tonight Ginny had been sent off to chase down a missing shipment of wizard ink. She could easily have Apparated to the Burrow, but needed the time alone with nothing to think about after a week of too much to think about. Even now as she steered down toward the field behind her parents' house, she wished the flight had been longer.

Broom propped on her shoulder, Ginny trudged over the winter-beaten meadow toward the warm lights of the kitchen. She was just passing by the long shadow of the shed when she heard voices near the tree-line, heated but lowered to a stage whisper.

Ginny approached the voices, using the shed as a shield from view. She peeked around and recognized her father by the wispy hair standing up from his head. He spoke forcefully with someone who, at the moment, was looking away and down.

Mr. Weasley was saying, "You will not come here unannounced, henceforth."

"And you think Mum won't notice if I'm missing for Sunday dinner?" the other figure said, giving away that it was Percy. He turned to face Mr. Weasley, which made the spare light catch in his hair, igniting it.

Mr. Weasley poked Percy in the chest. "You may come for Sunday dinners, but that is it. If I catch you here any other time, or hear of you visiting, you will answer for it."

"Right," Percy said, sounding bored. "All proper and everything all of a sudden. When I wanted rules around here, there was no chance of it."

"We aren't discussing the past . . . we are discussing the present," Mr. Weasley said. "Molly wouldn't hear of my banning you from this house outright, but I've a mind to."

In the muddy light, Ginny could not discern Percy's hands clearly. She slipped her wand out of her pocket and held it at ready. Percy's posture spoke of grave anger as he faced off with his father, and it seemed reasonable that he may snap and try something. Ginny half-wished he would.

"This family isn't much to brag about, really," Percy said. "Something about everyone's simpering attitude . . . really drags one back from true success."

"Then restricting your visits should be easy, in that case," Arthur stated crisply. Ginny smirked from her hiding place. She considered tossing something invisible, and well-deserved, at her brother, but decided that playing impromptu guard was far more important. She next wondered that Percy had come alone, then felt a chill despite her heavy robes that maybe he had not. She checked over her shoulder frequently while the argument went on.

"Do you intend to toss me out of the house if I happen to forget and drop in for tea? It'd be amusing to watch the attempt," Percy scoffed.

"Don't try me, Percy."

"Or you'll toss me out on my ear? Oh, but we can't have any scandal can we? Of course not. This is a proper sort of family, not one to make trouble, or perhaps, horror of horrors, make a bit of money."

Ginny imagined that her father now held a wand in his hand, but it was difficult to tell for certain. She gripped hers tighter.

"You may leave now on your own, or I will send you off. Your choice." Her father sounded more serious than Ginny had ever heard him, but he also sounded regretful, which really took the power out of it.

"Fine," Percy said sounding like his lips were too tight to really speak, and Disapparated.

Ginny's shoulders fell, but then she came to herself and ran the barrier status spells on the lawn, just in case Percy had brought someone with him inside the barriers. The trees sparkling drew Mr. Weasley's aim that way and he glanced around, pose tense.

"It's just me, Dad," Ginny called out as she came out from the shadows.

"Oh, Pumpkin, you startled me."

"Pumpkin?" Ginny sputtered. "You haven't called me that since I was four. Percy didn't hit you with something when I wasn't looking did he?"

Closer in, Mr. Weasley appeared strained. His voice fell low. "Don't tell your mother what you heard, if you would."

"Why not? Doesn't she need to know Percy is a first order git?"

Mr. Weasley put an arm around her shoulders and started toward the house. "She won't ever accept that, so, no. Speaking of accepting things, to what do we owe this visit?"

"I want some more of my things from my room," Ginny said. "If you think I've forgiven you for Harry, you're wrong."

He patted her shoulder and released her. "Won't be the first time."

Ginny kept her voice down as they reached the side door. "You shouldn't confront him alone, you know."

"I didn't expect to confront him at all."

Mrs. Weasley threw open the door from the inside, putting an end to the conversation. Ginny put up with a hug and insisted she just needed to ferry a trunk-full of things away. "And, um, can I borrow a trunk?"

"You may, Dear. I'm sure there's a spare in the attic." Mrs. Weasley lifted her robes to troop up the stairs. "But why don't you stay the night? It's awfully late to be towing anything by broomstick." She started up the next set, her voice echoing down the narrow opening, "The Wireless Foretellcaster said it may rain tonight."

"Doesn't he say that every night?" Ginny called up behind her, but there was no reply.

Ginny played with the flimsy bannister and waited. Mr. Weasley said, "She misses having you children around."

"We were all going to leave sometime. Don't try to make me feel guilty."

Mr. Weasley put up his hands. "I wasn't."

After a gap, Ginny said, "Really, Dad, if you need help with Percy, just send an owl or a silver bird. I'll happily help."

Mr. Weasley crossed his arms and considered her, the strained lines in his face shifting to amused. "I have an entire department of Aurors at my disposal, Pumpkin."

"Don't call me that."

"Your new living arrangements are working, it seems?" Mr. Weasley asked after another space, vaguely uncomfortable.

"I've only been there to sleep this week, and barely that," Ginny complained.

"I'm proud of you getting a better job than looking after your twin brothers' shop."

"So am I," Ginny agreed. "But don't think that doesn't mean I haven't already filled out another Auror Apprenticeship application for this year, Dad."

"I wouldn't dream of assuming that," he said airily.

Disarmed from this line of aggression, Ginny said, "Well, good," rather more lamely than she preferred. She sighed, "Where IS Mum?" and began to stomp up the stairs.

They found Mrs. Weasley beside a half emptied trunk, sitting upon a broken basket full of old Witch Weekly issues, her head bent over a photo album.

"Oh!" she said, upon seeing them there. She started to close the album, then turned back a few crackling pages. "I was just remembering when we still had all of you home." She flipped back another page, then closed the album and resumed emptying the trunk into a neat stack on the floor with a shuffling movement of her wand. "I do hope everyone can make it on Sunday."

Ginny and her father shared a frown.

Author Notes: My dream that I was going to get around to the making the edits to this chapter while visiting family for Easter was only that. Don't know what I was thinking, there. 

Second, "wicket," you may not know that word in this context, but despite beta advice to the contrary I left it in. It is the perfect word, officially defined to describe exactly what I envision here, and I've seen it in use in England in this situation, albeit, mid-1990s. 

Next: Chapter 43

Tonks shook her head, not in denial, but in dismay. "We have no leads on this kidnapping. It's been a month and we have nothing." She sighed again and swigged her beer. "I shouldn't be talking about it, but what the heck does it matter after this much time and money . . . the family has forked over, I don't know how much. I think the McCurdys have been lying to us about how much." Once she got rolling, she grew more animated. "And no one wants to go over there to guard the wife anymore, she's intolerable. The apprentices think we are punishing them when we send them instead."

Harry held back on his reaction. "Maybe he's happy to be away," he forced out so it sounded the jest.

"Right," Tonks said, but then laughed. "Maybe."

She drank her beer, sitting glumly. Harry made himself take a deep breath. "No idea where he is, though?"

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