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Chapter 43 — On Guard
Late Thursday evening Harry received an owl with detailed instructions. It told him where to go at certain times and what he should do when he arrived there. He read it through twice, wondering at the wisdom of the plan. He carried the letter downstairs where Candide sat flipping through the accumulated journals beside the couch, including the ones about Potions. The wireless eeked out nearly inaudible music, more haunting than entertaining.

"I need to take you to Hogwarts early in the morning," Harry said. "Or somewhere else if you prefer."

She stared at him and said, "Oh that's right, I forgot about tonight. I don't get to join in?"

Harry held up the letter. "Severus specifically says no. But if I take you to Hogwarts you can argue with him yourself."

She rocked to her feet. "Well, I'm partly to blame, so perhaps I'll get an early start to bed and be chipper in the morning. What time?"

"Four. It's a lunar eclipse tonight. Severus thinks that'll be a good opportunity, since Remus won't be completely transformed, or if he is, he won't be completely senseless, especially since he's been taking wolfsbane." He glanced at the letter. "I'm to fetch Pamela to the village of Ashthorn on the Muggle edge of the Forbidden Forest. I need to get her there in time for the full moon."

She stared at him, thoughts off elsewhere. "I guess I don't really need to see this. Remus seems like a very nice man to have to go through this."

"I thought you agreed it was a good idea?" 

"Oh, I do think it needs to happen; he won't relent otherwise. But a smaller audience is probably better for his pride."

Harry read the letter's postscript one more time before tossing it on the fire.

I have discussed your situation with your friend, Ms. Granger. Given her probing nature, this was inevitable. I am surprised that you have not spoken with her yourself.

- 888 -

The village of Godric's Hollow rested in muffled sleep, not even a nightbird's call broke the stillness. Harry made his way toward Pamela's porch light, which hung in space ringed by illuminated mist.

She answered his light rap while he was still knocking and backed up to let him in. She wore an oversized jumper and her hair was casually bundled at her neck. 

"Ready?" Harry whispered, finding it hard to talk normally in the hush of night.

"Let me get my scarf and something for my hands. Then I'll be ready . . . at least for the cold." She snorted wryly.

She tugged on a pair of thick mittens and nodded. Harry took her arm and took her away. They arrived on the roadside beside a pub that was shuttered for the night. The mist hung more thickly here, enhancing both distance and claustrophobia at the same time.

"Stay here," Harry said and fetched his bike from the car park behind the pub. Even though there were no houses nearby, he turned the roar! knob all the way down before kicking it to life.

He stopped beside her and handed her a helmet out of the compartment under the seat. 

Speaking quietly, she said, "This is more like my usual kind of date." She set the helmet over her head and as she fished out the strap from beside her ear, said, "You know, as dangerous as Remus is supposed to be, being a werewolf and all . . . on top of being a wizard, he is far sweeter than anyone else I know."

"Just hold that thought," Harry said, rocking the bike back to straight up. She swung over behind him with ease and wrapped her arms around his middle. Gravel punched out from under the tires as he gently powered back onto the tarmac.

A few miles along, Harry slowed, watching the play of the headlamp on the brush reaching toward the roadway. Even with the branches bare for winter, it was hard to find what he was looking for. They rolled along another mile and, he was considering turning around, when he spied an overgrown, stone gate post. Beyond that, the second gate hunched in the tangle. The space between them had been filled in with piled brush and discarded tree stumps that resembled angry spiders in the harsh light of the bike's headlamp. 

Harry gunned them into the air and over the blockade, eliciting a cry of surprise from Pamela.  With a squeak of the springs they came to rest on the other side, on a narrow gravel lane, still level despite long abandonment. Harry, worried about being late, rotated the hand grip and they shot through the trees, headlight bouncing wildly over the spidery branches.

They came out into a clearing where a low farmhouse stood. The looming straw roof overshadowed the modest structure, all green with moss and smelling of nature rather than habitation.

Harry set the bike on the stand and put the helmets away mostly by feel. He tweaked off the headlamp and they both stood listening, bathed in the glow of an unnatural crescent moon. Pamela had held her hand on Harry since they arrived, but she took a firmer grip just above his elbow.

Something large fluttered overhead, black against the midnight sapphire and diamond sky. A figure landed and waved a Lumos out of his wand, lighting his distinct profile.

"Severus," Harry said.

Snape glanced around as he strode over to them, using his broom as a walking stick. He went past to the center of the clearing where he waved deadwood out of the forest into a haphazard pile and ignited it. The warm glow chased away the empty night.

When the fire settled down, Harry walked Pamela over beside Snape, who continued to scan the treeline.

Snape said to Pamela, "You will remain between the two of us at all times. Do you understand?"

She nodded, then answered, "Yes," when Snape did not respond.

She still had hold of Harry's right arm. He switched her around to his left, to better handle his wand. 

"What time is it?" Harry asked. 

"Potter, if you cannot tell by the eclipse what time it is, you are beyond help."

Harry glanced up at the moon. "Testy, aren't we?"

Snape huffed. "I will be glad to have this over with."

The hold on Harry's arm tightened.

They waited. The burning logs settled lower. Snape pointed with his wand and said, "There."

Harry needed a moment to discern the dog-like grey figure sitting just this side of the far trees. The dancing light made the figure appear to shift and move, but it remained in place for many minutes. Pamela began pulling down hard on Harry's arm.

Voice wavering in Harry's ear, Pamela asked, "So, he's still a werewolf right now?"

"Looks it. When the moon is fully eclipsed, he may change back . . . temporarily."

Snape said, "His state is less predictable now with the second bite."

"Poor Remus," Pamela said.

The wiry figure shifted for real, disappearing and reappearing against the brush in the hazy blue glow. The werewolf padded on light feet around the fire and stopped, keeping the blaze partly between him and them. He stood, paw raised, still as a statue aside from the firelight reflecting in his eyes.

Snape lowered his wand. "Can you understand me, Lupin?"

The blue light of the moon continued to sink away, leaving the fire to dominate. The werewolf cocked his head, took a step, then became statue-like again.

Harry glanced over at the moon, the last feathery sliver slipped away and the whole moon surged into view, bathed in red light.

Lupin put one paw down, took another step, then seemed to break down, sinking to the ground. Pamela pushed away from Harry toward him, but was grabbed up by both of them.

Snape snarled low, "You will remain here."

Harry felt Pamela tense then slacken. Lupin contorted on the ground in a strange slow motion grind.

"Is he all right?" Pamela demanded.

Snape pushed her toward Harry and took a step in Lupin's direction, skirting the fire. "He is un-transforming." Well clear of the fire and Lupin, Snape crouched and said, "Remus?"

Harry took two careful steps closer, still holding Pamela. Lupin's hairy arm raised up and brushed at his ragged head, more human than werewolf, but just barely.

"Would you like more potion?" Snape asked. 

They were close enough that Harry could see Lupin nod. His patchy-haired body lay folded on the ground, back bent away from the fire, so his face fell in shadow. Snape reached into his pocket and took out a bottle. He glanced at Harry. "Cover me?"

Harry nodded and aimed his wand. 

"Harry!" Pamela chastised him. Harry had to raise his left arm to shield his wand hand from her grasp. 

"It's all right," Harry insisted, prepping something gentle in his mind, like a Mutushorum. But ready also with a Blasting Curse, should Lupin lunge. 

Pamela gave a gasp as Snape disappeared. But he had not, fully. A sinewy glisten of silky scales oscillated through the grass. The snake approached Lupin with the bottle clutched in its fangs. A half-paw reached out to take it and as he worked at the stopper with clawed hands, the snake slithered away. Lupin clumsily tipped the contents into his mouth. Glittering drips rained down, hinting at a poorly formed mouth.

Snape reappeared and stood straight, wand out. "What do you think?" he asked no one in particular.

Pamela required a few tries to answer. "I think you are all very cruel."

Snape's voice remained level. "How so?"

"Something more should be done. He shouldn't be left to cope like this."

Lupin tossed the bottle onto the fire and rubbed his hands over his hair.

"It's not his fault," she added.

"We know that," Harry said.

"Quite a bit is done," Snape said, then glanced at the red moon. "But now is not the time to debate that. He will be changing back presently."

"Are you all right, Remus?" Pamela called out.

Lupin moved as if to duck. Harry quietly said, "His hearing's very good right now, I expect."


Harry heard her breathing in and out, sounding distressed. He kept an eye on the moon, waiting for the sliver of white light to appear on the opposing edge from earlier.

"Isn't there anything we can do?" she asked.

Harry replied, "Give him help. Make sure he doesn't infect anyone else. He'd feel terrible if that happened."

"Yes," Snape agreed. "Guilt is popular around here as a self-wounding weapon."

Harry let that go. Dealing with Lupin always made Snape crueler.

In his ear, Pamela asked, "Is Severus capable of any pity?"

"There's a lot of history here you don't know," Harry explained.

The scene began to brighten and Harry stepped back, pushing Pamela along. The humanish black figure against the fire light distorted, growing ears and a snout crowned in the light by spiny hair standing up from his back.

The werewolf climbed to his feet and prowled in a circle, before raising up on two legs and sniffing in their direction. Pamela sighed in distress, but had stopped pushing so hard against Harry's arm. 

Lupin lowered himself back to four paws on the ground and cocked his head at them. Then bent low and backed up away from the fire before turning and loping away.

"He's gone," Pamela said wistfully.

"Stand back and I will douse the fire," Snape said.

Harry led Pamela to the bike while billows of hissing steam filled the clearing. She argued with no one in particular, "Just because he has this thing inside him, doesn't change who he is."

"Only if he lets it," Harry said.

They waited for Snape to join them. Harry said, "I'll take Pamela home and come back for the bike."

Snape nodded without ceasing to scan the edge of the clearing. Harry took Pamela's arm and with a burst of trapped air, her sitting room appeared around them.

She stepped away from him and her sigh sounded loud in the confined space. "I wish I didn't know any of these things."

"Including me?" Harry asked.

"What? No, I didn't mean that. Really. I'm exhausted. 'Course I'm glad to know you, Harry."

"This all comes along with it, I'm afraid."

She paced over to the couch but stood studying it rather than sitting. "I'm very glad to know Remus too, I just wish things could be different. I wish he could be more open about it all. He uses it as a shield, a wall, an excuse. I see that now. That's the real trouble. I also wish that I had not seen Severus turn into a snake."

Harry found himself grinning.

She turned to him. "I mean, I've known men I readily would call snakes in the grass, but that was a bit much."

Snape was still there when Harry returned to the bike, waiting with broom in hand.

"Go all right?" Snape asked.

"I think so. She understands that the problem isn't that Remus is a werewolf, but that he uses it to keep his distance."

"I'm not certain that is going to change just because she has seen the monster he becomes, but perhaps it will help," Snape said. 

- 888 -

Because he did not need to ferry Candide into the office, Harry slept in late Saturday morning. He scrubbed his face to wake up and stumbled through getting dressed before he tried to fetch his pet out for the day. But Kali would not leave her cage and instead burrowed under her rags. Harry rubbed his eyes and left her there.

Downstairs he found Hermione cradling a cup of tea across from Candide. His friend jumped up to greet him, her usual chipper morning self. Solicitously, she poured Harry a cup and placed it in front of the chair at the head of the table.

"Is Vishnu coming?" Harry asked through a nose full of steam.

"He's coming for brunch if that's all right."

"Yeah," Harry said, feeling a little awkward and wondering what Hermione had told his fellow apprentice, whose moral standards were too high to meet at the best of times.

Harry let the women talk while he read the morning's Daily Prophet. The paper had changed less than expected, aside from the expansion of the gardening section, and the new Missives to the Editor which now filled the back page. At least now Harry could read the whole thing without much concern. For the third day in a row there was absolutely no mention of him.

Vineet arrived in the Floo and brushed soot from his hands before greeting everyone. He bent to Hermione with restrained affection, accepted a seat, and proceeded to arrange the things before him, just so.

"You are very much missed in the department," Vineet said to Harry.

"Do you miss being there?" Hermione added while Harry pondered what to say.

Harry shrugged and found this response keenly observed from all quarters.

Their meals twinkled in. Everyone else had eggs, rashers of bacon and toast, but Vineet's plate had arrived holding UFO-shaped cakes and a red sauce.  

Vineet said, "The Minister of Magic has called each one into her office to ask for our thoughts on how to bring you back in."

"You always wanted to be an Auror," Hermione said, but she bit her lip before and after saying it. Harry probed at her eyes just enough to see Snape's hand in her comment.

"I did," Harry acknowledged flatly. "I don't know now." For some reason, he felt like toying with her. "Boring, really."

"Being a dark wizard hunter is boring?" Candide broke in to ask. 

Harry pretended his plate was interesting. "Much of it is."

"Hm," Candide breathed. Harry had told her about Durumulna, explaining that he wanted to find Moody's killer. She probably would have said more if they had been alone. She was good at keeping secrets, and Harry increasingly liked that about her.

When Candide excused herself for the second time, Vineet leaned in and said, "I am assuming you are recalling, still, my pledge of my loyalty to you?"

Harry shook his head and refilled his tea cup. Partly to see the reaction, partly because he thought he owed his friend, he said, "I do, but you shouldn't be pledged to me. You won't like yourself for long."

This made Vineet sit straight again. Harry expected him to glance at Hermione for help, but he did not; he held Harry's gaze. Keeping his voice down, Vineet added, "Perhaps you misunderstand me. I understand you." He paused, searching for words, which did involve glancing at Hermione, whose eyes were still wide. "I choose how to execute my loyalty. I reserve this right and I repeat that it is to you."

"All right, then," Harry said. 

"Harry . . ." Hermione began, sounding heartfelt, but she ducked back to her plate when Candide reappeared.

"Sorry," Candide said. "It's only supposed to get worse as it goes along, too."

"No worries." Harry glanced around the table at his friends and their barely concealed concern, and felt strange, almost euphoric. He itched to test things. Something. Anything. There were limits all around him, but he did not know where they were. He wanted to test some direction so he could find the limit along the way and remove it.

Harry's friends dawdled with small talk but they eventually departed. Harry combed the shelves in the library, and finding nothing more of interest, told Candide he would return shortly. He slipped away to the Restricted Section of the Hogwarts Library, and not wanting to search long, found the first book that shrank from his touch and took it home without even reading the title.

- 888 -

By mid-week, Harry was bored to a kind of fitful distraction. He brought Candide into work earlier than usual and Apparated to Tonks' flat to catch her before she could leave for first shift. 

"Harry. Sorry I couldn't stop by last night," she said. "Had to break up two separate fights last night and needed a quick fix up at St. Mungo's."

"You should have owled or messaged or something," Harry said, broken cleanly out of his inner thoughts by a surge of worry.

"You have to keep an eye on Candide. It wasn't anything terribly bad."

"Still," Harry said, glancing over her. She looked the same as always. "I'd like to know."

"Yeah," she said, "I know."

"Can you visit tonight?"

This prompted her to gaze up at the clock. "I'll try, Harry."

Harry let a sigh escape him. "Okay. I assume you need to go now, too, or you'll be late."

"You could come with me," she suggested. 

Harry considered that, uncertain whether his pride was in the way or something else. "Maybe another time," he said, and slipped away into the Dark Plane.

Silence hung in the musty air. Harry looked around himself, at the hillocks with their nests of crazed wire, at where the strange land met at the horizon at a stubborn grey sky. He started walking, thinking. Animals scurried on ahead of him and fell still, only to scurry again. An air of leaden expectation overlaid the place, like something waited, just out of sight. He should probably not remain here too long, but he could not think of anywhere he wanted to go.

It was early yet. Elizabeth was off to Oxford and Harry felt annoyed about that, wanting someone to blame for it, but came up with no good targets for his emotion. He was bored. He wanted to stretch his magic a bit and his choices were limited about how to do that. Anything he did, especially if he tried an assault on the one Durumulna hideout he knew, he would have to explain later, and that struck him as tedious, if not self-defeating. Before he could think better of it, Harry applied a disguise he hoped would stick, and fell away, far away, into the back room of the Hog's Head. 

Harry shivered violently upon the rusty rings of grit left behind by rotting barrels. A rat scurried away from him, frantic. Barely in control of his limbs, he stumbled out of the room and along the passage to the front of the pub, where in his mind's eye a roaring fire would be keeping the place habitable for customers. 

The fire wasn't roaring but the hearth held fragments of pulsing hot coals. Harry collapsed before it, facing it, ignoring the patrons, who shifted their chairs so the legs squeaked in surprise.

Harry clenched his wand in his hand and held it close to his chest. Someone's foot prodded him in the back. "Oy, lookie, someone's 'ad too much before even arrivin'."

The radiation off the coals burned Harry's cheeks where his disguise did not protect them. Fortunately he was warming up quickly. He relaxed into the waves of warmth and felt the shadows hovering nicely, distributed evenly all around, nearby and distant. One hovered quite close. Harry savored the feel of it, the dry metallic taste of its shifting form.

The barkeep stomped over. "Hey, old man, you want to sleep, you pay for a room." He grabbed at Harry's arm, set off those strange sparkles from passing between possibilities, and jerked his hand clear.

Harry sat up and glared at him, back broadside to the fire, which felt like salvation the way it seeped into his core. Voice roughened he said, "Get me a hot mead or something."

"Let's see your coin." 

Harry tugged a Sickle out of his pocket and tossed it at him. The bartender's reflexes were better than expected and he caught it out of the air and stomped off. 

Warmed, but still weak, Harry pushed to his feet and faced down the curious gazes arrayed in his direction, including the interested glint from a hooded figure slouched in the corner. Harry closed his eyes—not the Death Eater. Too bad, an audience might be fun.

A crooked chair rested against the wall. Harry waved it before the fire and accepted his drink. The rest of the place turned back to their elevenses and accomplices, sending overly casual, but attentive glances his way. Harry gave them nothing more of interest, just sat sipping his mead and examining the world in his head, thinking that he had been a starved man and now, finally, faced a buffet.

Rubbing his beard flat as an excuse to check it, Harry made his way out to the road, drawn toward the nearest shadow he sensed. He slowed before each ramshackle building, nearly passed one, but then decided it must be correct. He backed up and entered Honeydukes accompanied by a poppy Weird Sisters tune from the door chime.

He picked up a chocolate bar and took it to the unattended counter where he pretended to consider buying a package of chocolate frog cards while waiting for the shopkeeper. Off to his right, at a large marble slab, a worker directed a wide charmed paddle to flip and fold a great black mass of chocolate. That man, Harry realized. Mousy, with a long pointed nose accentuated by the kerchief tied around his hair. At Harry's scrutiny, he looked up, twice, before staring back, face shifting gradually from drowsy and bored to alarmed.

The other staff must have been busy in the back. It was still early. Harry continued to stare, considering what he would like to do. The paddle, unattended, began to miss the bulk of the chocolate blob, stretching limbs out of it, which flopped to the side, trying to escape the pristine marble.

Fussing with his uniform, the clerk came out and Harry bought his chocolate without taking his eyes from the Death Eater. The clerk shuffled off again. 

"I know what you are," Harry said, sneering faintly.

The man's mouth moved like it had gone dry. He grabbed the paddle out of the air and held it the way one would to brandish it. Beyond his eyes, his subservient past came tumbling forward, accompanied by cold panic.

Harry smirked and walked out, peeling his sweet to take a large bite. It tasted even better than the Honeydukes he knew.

Licking his fingers and, after contemplating the position of the sun, Harry slipped away to the Burrow, arriving in the brush bordering the old orchard. The sizzle of a spell made him tug out his wand. He came around the brushline and found Ginny and Mrs. Weasley, still in her apron, facing each other on the drive.

"Harder than that, Mum," Ginny complained. 

"Repetition of proper form is more important than trying for power every time, dear. I remember that from school, and I think it's good advice."

"I know that, Mum, but if I don't get this block strong enough, Professor Snape can send what's left of me home in a small brewing cauldron when I have my lesson tomorrow." She caught sight of Harry. "Oh!" 

With Ginny off her guard, Mrs. Weasley sent the spell she had prepared straight up into the sky, where it flared pink. "You children are too easily distracted."

Ginny met Harry as he strolled out onto the lawn. She shook her cold-reddened wand hand and slipped on her other mitten. "Hello," she said. "Didn't expect to see you again."

Mrs. Weasley greeted him stiffly and adjusted her muffs back over her ears. "I'll fix something hot. Bring our guest inside, dear. Must get Arthur to fix that dratted Weather Vain as soon as he gets home today."

Sticking for the moment with his genteel persona while Mrs. Weasley was in hearing, Harry said, "I wanted to see how you were faring."

Ginny's shoulders fell. "I'm working hard. I don't feel like I'm getting anywhere fast."

They strolled slowly toward the house. "Only a few people who know really believe anything bad is going to happen," Ginny confessed. "That's the hardest of all."

"We can do some drills if you wish. But I don't have much time."

They diverted back to the drive and faced each other. Harry called for a block and sent a mild Blasting Curse at her. She handled it, somewhat. He repeated it and the block wobbled the other way.

"Are you practicing enough?" Harry asked.

Ginny lowered her wand. "You have to be kidding. I practice all day."

Mrs. Weasley came out, directing a tray. She hovered this to the battered picnic table and sent a few spells up at the Weather Vain, but it just spun and sputtered. "The hot drinks will have to do, I'm afraid."

As they sipped from their cloudy mugs, Ginny studied Harry closely. She was peering past his disguise, Harry discerned. He also caught that her feelings heightened as she imagined what he really looked like.

"Still have crush on Potter?" Harry asked knowingly.

Ginny's eyes saucered. Mrs. Weasley chuckled. "No, she's long grown out of that. Haven't you dear?"

Harry smirked at Ginny, but then had to find something with which to dab foamy cocoa out of his mustache.

Mrs. Weasley said, "If you are going to be Ginny's spelling partner, I'm going to work on the chores a bit." 

More eager now that they were alone, Ginny put down her mug. "Let's get back to it. I have a new block, a Serpolo, that I have to get right. You know that one?"

"Of course," Harry drawled.

"Yes, of course. Silly of me."

They took up their positions again, using the drive as the dueling platform. Harry fell easily into the cycling habit of the limited drill sequence. He would have previously insisted that this was boring, but he did miss it. The reassuring repetition and the feel of magic flowing freely through him kept the siren call of the shadows at bay. He liked having the power to resist them almost as much as he liked having them there, keeping him company.

As soon as Ginny began to put up solid blocks, Harry began modifying his attack spells so her blocks would go wonky again. After each one, she would shake her head and mutter something.

"I thought I was doing better."

"You are," Harry called back.

She lowered her wand, but Harry did not break sequence, so she had to duck under a smaller block to avoid his Freezing Hex. He did not let up, moving right on to the Confusion Charm.

"Stop, stop," Ginny said, protecting her head with her arm, wand held out blindly.

Harry sent her one more before complying. She managed to block it, but just barely. She stood slowly and combed her hair back with her fingers, and said, "Yes, I know, my enemy would not listen. I get that from Snape, believe me. I need another sip or two of Butterbeer."

Snape, Harry thought, briefly closing his eyes. He was one of those alluring shadows out there. Shaking himself, he joined her back at the table where she stalled returning to drills. Harry did not mind; he was examining the world around him, the way the light leaching through the clouds shifted on the great lawn in front of the Burrow, the way that Ginny's curls caught the light like polished metal, and the way the shadows begged to be hunted or exploited, whichever he choose. He watched Ginny reheat her mug and sip at it, wanting to leave and use his short remaining time here to investigate the shadows instead. 

Her light brown eyes came up to his. She laughed oddly and talking quietly said, "So funny to know who you really are. No one would believe it." She laughed lightly again, school-girlish. Without the trials his friends had endured she was still youthful. She was pondering him with far too much interest.

"You do still like him," Harry said.

She blushed, bringing her face more in line with her hair.

Harry laughed. From inside the house, he heard a clock chime. He did not wait to hear the count. "I have to go," he said.

Harry was late picking Candide up from the office, but she still had her head bent over one of those tall scrolls and did not even mention it. When they arrived home, Harry found an unsigned letter in the post. Belinda's flat 3 p.m. it read before it burst into flames and Harry tossed it toward the hearth.

"Howlette?" Candide asked without looking up from a thick letter. "Quiet one if it was."

"Can you visit your parents this afternoon? Or the Weasleys?" Harry asked.

Candide lowered the letter and considered him. "Yup." She did not ask more, making Harry appreciate her all the more.

- 888 -

At Belinda's flat, Harry found the masked beefy man from his previous rendezvous and his two underlings. The man shoved one of the underlings in Harry's direction.

"They're yours for the afternoon. You have some business to take care of." When the man looked to be departing, Harry started to ask more. "These two know where you're going," the man gruffly said. "You're just there to make sure no one interferes." Then he was gone.

Harry studied his newly assigned assistants. "I need some names," Harry said. "You know mine."

The gangly one, with a habit of gesturing with hands that were narrower and longer than seemed natural, said, "I'm called Hummer and he's usually called Slowdraw."

"Wonderful," Harry said, trying not to sound too sarcastic.

Hummer stared at Harry expectantly. "And what are we supposed to call you?"

"'Harry' is not appropriate, I suppose?"

Slowdraw said, "He could go as 'Harry Potter'. It certainly sounds like an alias."

"Not if it's his real name, ya pillock."

Harry put out a hand in case their slapping turned into a real fight. "How did you get the name Slowdraw," he asked, half as a distraction.

Hummer laughed, pointing at his partner. "He wanted to be Zipdraw, but somehow no one kept a straight face while calling him that since it never was true. I tried getting everyone to call him Zimmerdraw, but it's a bit long."

Slowdraw's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Never mind," Harry said, "just call me the Old Man."

"Hey . . ." Hummer said, "that's a good one."

Impatient to finish and get away from these two, Harry said, "We're supposed to go do something?"

Their attitudes grew sober. In a low, serious tone, Slowdraw said, "Yeah, we got a shipment coming in."

Harry did not like having to do it, but he let Hummer Apparate him where they needed to go. They arrived on a lonely, dirt coast road pinned between the hills and wave-spattered boulders. The wind roared along the shore, tossing the faded grass and kicking off the tops of the spray from the crashing waves.

Hummer walked along the road while Harry and Slowdraw waited. He dived into the brush beside the road and after some tossing about of the branches came back with three broomsticks. They mounted these and were off along the coast, full speed. The brooms, despite the mud and leaves caught in the bristles, were top of the range. Harry had to duck his head to get a full breath they were flying so fast into the wind. The underlings flew with their heads permanently ducked down and to the side, glancing forward only occasionally. 

Suddenly the two of them veered off, out over the water. Harry followed, muscles thrilling, heart leaping at the instant maneuverability of the broomstick. Back on shore, a car approached, bouncing over the bad surface of the one-lane road.

They remained out over the water, flying straight, the glinting wave tops blurred beneath them. Harry could do this all afternoon, he decided, hoping their destination was far ahead of them.

They flew a long time, long enough that they passed through two rain showers and Harry wished he had used a Repelling Charm on his glasses.

They landed at a half-ruined abbey on a narrow promontory. The weather had cleared but the waves continued to thunder just below them. 

They landed in a small clearing in the abbey's rubble in what previously had been the largest room. One arched window remained bolstered by a few blocks, so fragile it was a wonder the wind did not blow it over. 

"Not here yet," Hummer said. "Someone needs to patrol."

The underlings stared at each other. Slowdraw said, "He's in charge of security."

Harry said, "I'll do it. What am I looking for?"

"Anything," Slowdraw said, sounding like Harry had gone dim. On top of Slowdraw's already slow demeanor this was sinking pretty low.

"I don't want to spell whomever we're meeting," Harry pointed out tartly.

"Ah, well, you won't do that on accident," Slowdraw assured him.

Harry rolled his eyes and left them there, happy to go back up on the broomstick. Before he hovered it, he looked for a brand name, but there wasn't one. The broom was completely plain, like someone had rubbed every last ounce of polish off it, including the name which would have been engraved in several places. Shrugging, he took flight and circled outward around the jagged tooth of land standing firm against the onslaught of the cold, foaming sea.

There was no one around. The only Muggle road was a mile away and the only farms had derelict little buildings with gaping black squares for doors and windows. Harry veered, avoiding taking a predictable path in his patrol. He was just going to sweep out a bit wider when he saw something out over the water, something far too large to be hovering up in the air like that. 

Harry continued his patrol, glancing frequently back at the thing growing in size. On his next pass, Slowdraw waved Harry down from the top of a high broken wall. When Harry signaled back, Slowdraw jumped on his broom and flew directly out to sea. Harry noticed that the rubble had all disappeared from the large room. Hummer waited with Harry by the wide doorway, observing the craft approaching.

"Don't you want a mask?" Hummer said, sounding honestly surprised. "You haven't potioned your face off."

Harry raised his wand to give himself a spell-based one, but Hummer waved him off and found one behind a neat stack of fallen blocks.

"Real ones don't fail when you're in a fight," he said.

Harry cleaned the dusty mask with a spell and slipped it on just as their delivery slid onshore with a great rasp and rocked to a rest. 

It was a flying barge, suspended from sixteen giant flying carpets tethered like kites. Figures in hoods that made their faces too dark to see even in good daylight, began unloading crates from the barge and hovering them inside. The underlings jumped up to help and soon the ruin's largest room was stacked floor to sky with all manner of boxes, crates and trunks. Harry remained far enough removed to keep everyone in sight at all times, wand at the ready.

The muscle from the craft retired to the deck of it and broke out bottles of something clear and smelling sharp enough, Harry's eyes watered from twenty feet away. Within the ruins a debate started over the manifest and the crates.

With one last careful check of the barge's occupants, Harry slid inside the door, keeping his back to the wall, to listen in. 

Hummer was standing over an open trunk filled with sacks, saying, "These are not of the quality we were expecting."

The accent on the visitor flowed thickly. "Dese is the quality available right now. You want better, you have to help me with my supplier. He is getting trouble with his Ministry, you know."

Hummer went down the line to a rough crate and opened it, pulling out a twig with great care, examining it in the light, before placing it back inside and opening another.

"Those are Estonian. The best. I swear on my great uncle's bunions, dose are the best. And half the price so you can take out the local market and still turn a coin."

Hummer nodded and made a note. They continued down the line, opening next a trunk full of books, some of which Harry recognized from Hogwarts. Hummer opened one before tossing it back inside. "Kids don't know the difference."

The visitor added, "And the bindings do not last, reducing the resale value considerably." He rubbed his hands together. "More sales the next year."

As they completed the entire warehouse and Hummer charmed it all to resemble piles of rubble stacked against the walls, the visitor pulled out an awkwardly tall bottle and glasses from his pocket.

"You got new muscle," he said, tossing his hooded head in Harry's direction. "You want some?" he shouted to Harry, even though Harry stood not so far away. 

Harry shook his head.

Slowdraw motioned that he only wanted a little between glances at Harry. He leaned close to the visitor. "It is good there was no trouble today," he said.

"Why, he still green?" The visitor laughed.  "To business," he then said, raising his glass.

Harry's new colleagues wanted him to fly back with them to their Apparition spot, but Harry wanted to catch Tonks when she got off shift. He said, "I won't Apparate, so no one can track me," he said. "But I'm going on my own."

"Give over the broom then," Slowdraw said.

Hummer, in a tone of giving advice said, "Difficult people don't make it long with the boss. They don't make it at all, in fact."

Harry held out the broom and Slowdraw bundled it with his own using peevish movements. "Now what're you going to do? Portkey's out too, boss says. Not that we'd ever have one."

Harry transformed into his Animagus form, forcing the two of them back by shock as well as the wind off his wings. He leapt into the air off all four legs and leaned into a turn, caught the wind off the sea and lifted away from the ruins. Below him the underlings were gaping up at him before a crumbling bell-tower wall blocked them from view.

Harry flew high since he had not asked for an Obsfucation Spell. When he spied a remote stretch of woodlands he plummeted to soar low to find a landing spot amongst the bare trees. From there he Apparated to Tonk's flat.

She still had her cloak on from just arriving home.

"Harry," she said, surprised. 

He was glad to see her. "Can I come in?"

"Yeah. Why wouldn't you?"

Tonks dropped into a chair, making the metal feet chirp against the floor. She flattened her hair down before fluffing it back up with her inherent magic. 

"You are getting me a beer?"

"Yeah," Harry said, closing the fridge door and waving the caps off. 

She sighed and propped her head on her hand, bedraggled despite having neatened her appearance. Harry thought she seemed to be aging faster.

"You've been working too much," Harry complained lightly.

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 thoughtfully. "Maybe."

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

She snorted and dropped her voice. "The last source we had inside that particular branch of Durumulna . . . we found him dead last week. Hung up by his collar over the fence at the Belgravia police station, charmed invisible so the Muggles couldn't see him, only smell him."

"Ah," Harry said, and busied himself with re-chilling his sweating beer. "Anything more on Percy?" Ginny had told Harry about her father's banning him from the Burrow, so he assumed Mr. Weasley's investigation was still active.

"Nothing I should tell you," Tonks said.

"But he's in Durumulna, right?"

Tonks shrugged, but it seemed like a 'yes'.

"What is he doing for them?" Harry asked, mostly thinking aloud. Harry had seen no sign of him, but then again, he had only seen a handful of gang members without masks.  "I mean what would they want the git for?"

Tonks sounded disappointed in him as she rhetorically asked, "You mean, besides insider information?"

"True. What's HE get out of it? Other than a girlfriend," he added, thinking of the creepy date Percy kept with him.

"Hate to imagine he's sold out over a woman, no matter how good she looks in tight black clothes." Tonks raised her beer to the side and assumed a reasonable approximation of Vespera's usual outfit.

Harry grinned and thought she looked quite good that way. "So, you've met, I see."

"I've seen her meeting Percy in the Atrium a few times. The guard usually won't let her in. I used to think he was just an annoying git, but now I have a soft spot for him." 

Harry traced lines with his thumb in the droplets on his beer bottle, trying to think rather than be distracted by her appearance. "So, Percy may only have limited contact with Durumulna."

"Possibly. Having followed him, I'm willing to believe that. Unless he is stellar at Doppelgängers." Her clothes faded back and her gaze narrowed in on Harry. "Why all the questions?"

"I'm just thinking. I'd like to catch him in the act of something is all."

"You AND me. But you aren't even as official as you were before, remember?" 

Harry bristled at what sounded like her talking down to him. "I know that," he said stiffly, feeling angry and behind that pressed a flood of something dark and sticky that he did not want loosed. He glanced at his watch. "Candide will be coming back soon from her parents', I need to get home."

- 888 -

As he donned his warmest cloak, Harry relished notions of the Hogwarts Quidditch match, the most that he'd had since leaving school. Perhaps it was the tedium his life had been reduced to recently that made it so appealing.

Winter did not slacken for the event. A burst of frigid air tried to take off the door to the Three Broomsticks when Harry opened it to depart. His friends followed him out, ducking into the wind one at a time. Hermione came aside Harry, strolling fast to keep up between the longer legs of him and Vineet. Harry slowed and turned to watch Aaron pinning the door against his foot for Ginny and Fred to exit. Ron slunk out behind them, failing to acknowledge Aaron holding the door for him. 

Harry slowed when he spotted figures standing in the lee of the pub, in the alley. They stood with their heads low, gathered around a central figure. Coins dropped into waiting gloves, one at a time to be counted. 

Behind Harry, Fred asked Ron, "So, how much did you wager on the match?"

"I didn't, this time," Ron replied. "I couldn't bear to put money on Slytherin and the spread the booky at Gringotts wanted was rubbish."

"Well," Fred said, "in that case you should have some spare coin for a little bet with your brother . . ."

Despite arriving just as the ball crates were being hefted to the center of the pitch, the stands were sparsely occupied.

Hermione slid along the bench to make room, hunched in her heavy cloak. "Sad to see that half of the wizarding world is more intelligent than us."

"You are not appreciating Quidditch?" Vineet asked, when there was a break in the wind. He sat unbothered by the chill.

"It's the weather," she replied.

Vineet reached for his pocket. "Would you like a Warming Charm?"

"I have one already. Thank you," she replied.

Harry leaned closer to the two of them. "What? Something about becoming a teacher, your spells stop working?"

"Harry, you are on really thin ice here."

Harry grinned, leaving off his teasing. "Well, that explains why my bum is so cold."

Hermione stated succinctly, "I repeated the charm too many times on the walk to Hogsmeade, already, that's all."

Vineet leaned in closer. "It is fortunate you are not marked on this assignment."

Hermione's reply was lost in the crowd rising to their feet to cheer the Quaffle toss. Harry eyed each of the players in turn. Some, specifically the Slytherin Beaters, were too large to still be in school at all.  The Ravenclaw Chasers looked too frail to be facing them. The little bulk they had came from their wrist guards and padding. Harry recognized Wereporridge, who played with an unwavering crease of concentration on his brow.

Harry leaned over across Ginny and tapped Aaron on the leg. "Who's the other Slytherin Beater besides Wereporridge?"

"Cadre, his name is," Aaron replied as the aforementioned player whacked a Bludger with a sound like a thunderclap. It flew in a clean arc towards a Ravenclaw Chaser dropping toward the center goal in a collapsing pyramid maneuver. Instead, she was knocked off her broom, and only held on by a gloved hand. By the time she swung a leg back over, the play had collapsed and Slytherin was carrying the Quaffle the other way. She flew hunched over, clutching a shoulder.

"Hogwarts needs a size limit on players," Harry said.

"He is big enough for League play," Aaron agreed. "But where would the fun be for Slytherin then? Keeping students back is our main advantage."

"Well, it's not brains," Ginny opined. "They didn't even set up a play on the return run, just blasted straight through."

"It worked though," Aaron pointed out, crossing his arm. "Ten to zero, you will note."

"It lacks a certain beauty and grace when they have the Quaffle."

The beefier Slytherin Chaser tried to force the Ravenclaw Chaser out of the pitch area. The Chaser executed a roll, throwing off his opponent. He underhanded the Quaffle to his still limping team mate, who made an instant recovery, pivoted, and scored on the left hand goal post.

"Faker!" Aaron cupped his hands to shout. When Ginny batted him on the arm, he turned and said, "What?"

The Seekers flew high, fluttering specks against the seething clouds. Tanzer and Suze were equally matched, weaving in and out of each other's flight path. One of them would swerve and the other pulled up to match pace and, if in position, block the other's path. This went on and on. Glimpses of Suze's hair were the only clues as to who was who. 

Ravenclaw arranged their team for a run at the goal, flying like a diagram on a blackboard. The shot on goal flew wide, shot early so the Chaser could put both hands on his broomstick and execute a spin to dodge a Bludger.

Slytherin again came straight down the pitch, heedless of Beaters and Chasers dodging to cut them off. The goal keeper made a panic save with his broom tail, and the score remained tied.

The Seekers flew lower now, flying just outside the flag poles in a great oval race. Fans stood up to watch them come around behind, flying so fast they passed with a whoosh-whoosh. They circled again, faster, uniforms flapping madly. Suze pulled up and dropped into orbit in the other direction. The whole crowd had stood to watch the Seekers. They looped around, straight at each other, diverting just at the flag pole over the Teachers' Box so that they missed colliding. A few of the teachers ducked unnecessarily.

Tanzer pulled straight up, dodging randomly once, twice, suggesting that he has spotted the Snitch. Back on the pitch the Ravenclaws were running a Spider Web, a keep-away arrangement meant to tire the opposing Beaters.

Suze careened across the pitch toward her opponent, broom kicked so hard into full speed that it flew canted. Tanzer dropped his body, arm extended. Harry caught sight of the Snitch then, glittering off the boy's fingertips. But his broomstick floated upward, leaving the prize buzzing just out of reach. He hung that way, straining while time stretched thin, until Suze blasted through, spinning her opponent around and grasping the Snitch out of the air.

Aaron threw his hands over his head and pumped his fist. "All right!"

Everyone else sat down, and Harry elbowed Ginny, who tossed up her hands. "I can't help that he's a Slytherin."

Harry stood up, watching the players land and the Slytherins piling on top of one another, largest on the bottom. Snape appeared at the base of the staircase to the Teachers' box. He stood watching his players, face neutral.

"I'll meet you at the pub. I want to go talk to someone," Harry said to his friends, then pushed his way to the exit.

Down on the grass, the players were greeting friends and family. Harry parted the convivial noises, drawing surprised gazes his way, mixed expressions that made his own thoughts mix around dangerously. 

Harry arrived just as Suze reverently held out the Snitch to Snape.

"Professor," she said shyly. She glanced over at Harry and her face slipped from shy into a grin. 

"Can I talk to Suze for a minute?" Harry asked.

Snape gestured that he could, and Harry led Suze aside over onto the warning track. 

"Nice match. You looked to be having fun up there." Harry tried not to feel jealous.

She stroked her broomstick. "It did all right in a straight match up. I didn't think it would. I read all about the builder of his bespoke one and thought I was outmatched. But I beat him to it in the end."

Harry let her bask in memory for a moment before leaning down to quietly ask, "Do you think he threw the match?"

She stared at Harry with her strange eyes. "Why would he do that?"

"That's a separate question," Harry said. "I couldn't see as well from the ground as you could from up there. That's why I'm asking."

Suze's eyes narrowed thoughtfully, but she did not reply. Wereporridge shouted for her to join them in returning to the warmth of the castle. She waved back to him and said quietly to Harry, "It was a little strange, him not pulling down on his broom. He could have. He was hanging upside down and sometimes that confuses people. But if he can't control a broom upside-down, he shouldn't be a Seeker."

Harry patted her on the shoulder. "I don't mean to diminish your win. You looked good up there. Don't say anything, okay?"

She grinned broadly. "Why would I? Come. On."

Harry walked with her. "One can always count on a Slytherin to act in their own self-interest."

Snape, standing waiting in his best cross-armed pose, caught the tail end of this and raised his brows. "Can one?"

Harry let Suze walk on alone. The two of them stood there until the pitch cleared around them. Out of the wind it was far more pleasant.

Snape said, "How was your week?"

Harry glanced around them. The stray breeze catching at the grass was the only thing within hearing. He waved a spell for Animagia just in case. "Interesting and boring at the same time."

"The boring only concerns me in so much as what it might drive you to in the interest of alleviating it. What was interesting?"

"I did a small job for someone. Just guard duty."

Snape centered his cloak and adjusted the snake clasp. "Learn anything?"

"Minor things. I'm starting to wonder if the person I'm looking for is there often enough for me to catch him there."

Snape nodded. "Anything else?"

Harry did not answer right away. He did not want to tell Snape he had again left this Plane.

"I'll take that as a 'yes'," Snape said. He bent his head while he talked, which masked his voice. "I am hoping you will assure me you did not go back to that place you just rescued me from."

"I didn't go back there," Harry said.

Snape raised his head and stared straight into Harry's eyes. "If I request that you never go back to that place again, what would your response be?"

Harry tossed his hands. "Fine. I don't need to go back there."

Snape held his gaze, making Harry want to look away. "If you did find yourself wanting to go back there, what would be the reason?"

Harry trial-ran the honest answer against his new instincts and found them silent. "To try my power against his." He liked the sound of the words. He liked the way it made his insides go molten.

"You may be surprised what you find. I can send you some reading about that wand of his, if you wish."

Harry cocked a grin. "Then you are suggesting I wait until I feel ready?"

Snape raised his chin and took Harry's elbow to steer him off the pitch. "You are jesting."

"Half jesting," Harry insisted. 

Next: Chapter 44
"Aren't you Harry Potter?" the desk clerk asked.

Harry turned. The clerk was a delicate woman with a careworn face and receded jaw. The magic radiating off her was weak, almost overwhelmed by the taint of stale blood radiance leeching off the walls around them. She barely qualified as a witch at all.

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