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Chapter 48 — Safekeeping

The room finally emptied of visitors, and Harry claimed the recently vacated chair beside Snape, who was arm-rocking a vaguely fussing Arcadius. Harry leaned over for a better look. Arcadius' eyes were peering off at nothing between long squints.

"Can he see?"

"A little, I am told."

Candide, walking by while stretching her legs, said, "He is supposed to have an affinity for faces."

Harry followed the path of unfocussed attention to one of the solidly outlined paintings of interweaving vines and a broad river. "He seems to have an affinity for that odd painting behind you."

Without glancing at it, Snape proclaimed, "High contrast." Then after a beat. "Would you like him?" When Harry automatically lifted his hands, Snape advised, "Be certain to hold up his head."

Harry adjusted his hands about three ways, none of which quite worked. "No wonder everyone looks so clumsy." He arranged the baby along his arm, head cradled in his palm and that seemed comfortably secure. The baby smelled distinctly of raw humanness and slightly spoiled milk. "Hello there, Arcadius," Harry said.

Bella Donna had felt magical the way other wizards and witches did. The bundle in his arms felt similar, but with something more, like he emitted a low level hum of some other energy that surged and faded at random.

Arcadius played his curled fingers over his own cheek before waving his hand spasmodically. It all seemed much more interesting than perhaps it warranted, since everyone observed in rapt silence.

"So?" Candide prompted. "Is he?"

Mouth crooked, Harry innocently said, "I thought you didn't want to know?"

Snape raised a brow, matching Harry's tease.

Harry angled the baby up, spurring a round of arm beating and half-hearted fussing. "He is." Harry rotated his body to transfer him back to Snape.

"But?" Snape prompted, changing positions once before pulling Arcadius against his robes, splayed fingers balancing his wispy head.

"But what?" Harry said, arms chilled in the wake of losing the bundle.

Snape said, "There seemed to be more. That is all."

Harry shrugged. He had no means to describe the difference he perceived, and lacked the desire to try. "He's magical. That's all I can tell."

Candide lifted the baby from Snape. "One more feeding, then we should at least try to sleep. It's really late."

One of the junior Midwitches knocked and entered just as Candide was settling back on her small hill of pillows. The Midwitch pulled a suspended bassinet over beside the bed. "The little tyke can sleep here, in easy reach for his 4:00 a.m. feeding." She spoke pleasantly, like this was an idea to relish. "When you are ready, we'll wrap him up tight so he'll sleep better." She turned her pink-hatted head to the two of them. "Just a reminder, visiting hours ended a half an hour ago." She straightened a few things and slipped out again, never ceasing to move. 

Snape turned to Harry. "Are you staying?"

Harry glanced between the two of them, at Candide peaking down to speak to the suckling babe beneath the light blanket draped over her shoulder, at Snape watching him expectantly. The scene tugged at him, and he resisted going home to the creakily quiet house.

Snape said, "They will release Candide after noon, most likely. Why don't you stay at least until breakfast? It is late."

"I can just Apparate home," Harry pointed out. "Right to my room." He yawned then and blinked back the heat it sent into his eyes, certain now that the fairylights had been gradually dimming.

"Come," Snape said, standing. 

"I packed extra nightshirts, Harry," Candide said.

"All right," Harry said, torn between dueling sets of burgeoning instincts. For the moment, remaining here as a family, as a part of an impossible photograph he had stumbled into, won out.

Harry tossed his robe over a small chest of drawers, grateful to get the slightly itchy thing off his bare skin. The frayed old nightshirt was downy soft in comparison. Harry stepped back to the doorway and watched as Snape, standing beside the bed, bent over to kiss his wife on the top of the head and she glanced up with a face overflowing with complex emotion. The scene sent Harry elsewhere, disconnected inside and out, lost in myriad possibilities. 

Snape stopped before him as Harry stood waiting for something to jar him back to the present.

"Quite all right?"

"Tired," Harry said. And he was. He felt drained like he never had before; like his thoughts were full of treacle.

Snape tilted his head toward the guest bed. "I'll be a while longer. I'll wait with Candide until Arcadius is asleep." 

"The novelty of that will wear off quickly, I expect," Candide teased, leaning over to set the babe into the hanging bassinet. 

Harry shuffled to the guest suite bed and curled up on one side of it, knees off the edge to leave space. He was jolted awake by the bed sliding beneath him.

Snape's voice came out of the dimness. "Sorry. The bed adjusts to the number of occupants, apparently."

Harry, foggy thoughts rattling ineffectively in his head, only grunted and pulled the covers up better. Exhaustion sucked him down again, through a dappled green world of shadows—one distinctly contorted one pulsing and twitching—until he sensed nothing.

"Harry?" Snape's voice came from very close by. Close enough that Harry could feel his breath on his neck. 

Harry felt his arm thrash, but not against anything physical; it fought against the shadow squirming and tossing in his mind. 

The hand on Harry's arm tightened painfully and pushed him onto his back. "Harry, it's just a dream."

Harry quieted his rushed breathing and swallowed hard. The fairylight in the corner responded to their movement, giving form to the world, which helped Harry inventory what was inside of him and what was out. He took a deep, settling breath and avoided meeting Snape's gaze, which took on an unfamiliar harshness in the wan light, peering downward like he was.

Despairing exhaustion overcame Harry, making his face scrunch up. He wanted to empty himself of what had happened. He wanted to tell Snape what he had done. His chest filled as he gathered air to speak, but instead he held it in until his lungs complained.

Too weak to manage speech, he exhaled coarsely through his nose. 

"Harry?" Snape shifted to sit up beside him and adjusted the blanket. "Can I help you, Harry?"

Harry longed for help, but with what he was uncertain. The oblique glow from the floating fairylight threw the ceiling into high relief. Harry's eyes traced the grooves and swirls in the plaster left by the rough hand of the builder. He was failing, he could see that clearly now. Failing at everything that mattered. It did not motivate him to change so much as crush his chest in, pinning him helplessly.

Snape's hand moved on his shoulder, clasping gently this time. Harry's eyes hurt, he was so grateful to not be alone in that instant.

A high pitched, rattling little wail came under the door. Snape tossed his half of the covers down and moved to stand up. Harry smiled faintly; that had been too close. 

From the next room came the sounds of reassurance and quiet debate about the baby's bodily comfort. 

"He's probably just wet," Candide said. 

An inordinate amount of shuffling around sounded then, as well as the lights coming up brighter, which further degraded the tenor of complaint from Arcadius. 

"Is that better?" Candide's bright voice asked minutes later. "There you are. There you are," came in a repeated chant, followed by the fussing taking on the drum-like rhythm of someone being patted on the back.

"Maybe he wishes to eat again?" Snape suggested.

"It's only been a hour?"

Harry thought he could hear a shrug in the shifting of a dressing gown. Material shifted more and the fussing ceased suddenly.

Harry was sitting up when Snape returned and quietly pushed the door until it latched. Softly, he said, "Not a lot of needs at this age, but sorting out which ones are called for at a given moment seems harder than expected."

Harry smiled lightly. Snape had brought the scent of newborn back in with him. It drifted around the room when he shed his dressing gown. He sat on his side of the bed and rubbed his face. 

"Harry," Snape began after a while, voice coarse and low. "You are certain there is nothing I can help you with?"

"You seem to have your hands full," Harry glibly pointed out.

Snape's voice went stern instantly. "I do not."

Harry considered the shadow that weighed upon him. He could always cancel the spell, push the mark out of Slowdraw like he had out of the others. As soon as he was finished with him, he would do that. "I can take care of myself."

"I am here for whatever you need," came the response, low and pledge-like.

Harry thought, I need a shadow close that I can trust, one that is sustaining rather than draining. He felt that deep energy billowing up in him again. No, he thought, and with great effort, shucked the notion away, but it was sticky, repeatedly trying to bloom in his mind. Frantic, Harry tried to convince himself of the ill wisdom of the idea. He was a traitor, he insisted, speaking directly to Voldemort's sensibilities in a bid to free himself from the other's intent.

"What . . . ?" Snape asked uncertainly.

Harry sat, half curled around himself, one hand clenching the back of his head. He must have spoken aloud. He held still like that, back muscles pulled painfully taut, breathing difficult, thinking quickly. "I don't know," he said into his elbows. Lying.

Snape shifted closer, eyes intense in the dimming fairylight. He said, "Lie back, Harry, and get some sleep. I think you need it."

Harry resisted, but exhaustion took over. He flopped down on his side, arms pinned uncomfortably under him, and just laid there. He expected to be left alone then, but Snape pushed the hair out of the corner of his eye and brushed it lightly back over his ear. 

When Snape spoke, the fairylight ceased dimming just short of complete darkness. "I've always been on your side, Harry, even when it did not seem so. I believe you realize that now, so I can only assume that opinion was from someone else."

Every muscle in Harry's body went taut and rigid upon the soft bed. Snape went on, "Do you want me to fetch a potion from home to make you sleep soundly?"

For a mentally thrashing moment, Harry wanted to distrust him, wanted to suspect him of trying to dope him or even poison him, but he could not mistrust him and the suspicions evaporated, leaving him helpless again.


Harry shook his head. His muscles were quivering and giving way, falling lax against the bed. He had to clear his throat to speak. "I'm pretty tired. It's okay."

His surprisingly normal tone must have satisfied Snape, who straightened the bed covers before crawling under on his side, facing Harry, watching him until the fairylight shrank down and disappeared.

- 888 -

"Would you like breakfast, Harry?" Candide asked from the doorway of the guest suite, voice crisp and chipper. "Severus is going to fetch something from home rather than brave the cart in the atrium."

His stomach rumbled at the thought of a Winky-cooked breakfast. "Yeah. Thanks." He sat up and rubbed his eyes while Candide made googly noises at the baby nestled in her arm. 

"We've been awake since five, haven't we?" she said to the babe in a bright tease. "Sleep is going to be a thing of the past for a while, I think."

Harry nodded in silent agreement.

Snape paid no special heed to Harry the rest of the morning, of this Harry was certain since he was watching for it especially. He was glad to be left to himself while the Midwitches fussed over things, like a stunningly disgusting diaper that Harry pulled his shirt up over his nose for, but no noxious smell came his way. Instructions were repeated twice over, which Snape did not complain about as Harry expected. Through the shuffling around the room and baby bathing demonstration, Harry was glad to be left on the sidelines as an intimate observer.

While the last of the packing was going on just before lunchtime, Harry perused one of the Magical Baby Care booklets they had been given. There were rather a lot of recommended restrictions on magic for newborns.

All manner of Quiescing and Silencing spells should be avoided. Newborns always cry for a reason. Consult your Mediwizard or Midwitch if you cannot find relief for your offspring by non-magical means!

No children under the age of four should be allowed in the Floo network, except in the case of intractable emergency. If you cannot Apparate safely with the child, a house-visit can be arranged. Just Owl or Fire Call our friendly Floorclerk.

Harry closed the book and put it in the colorful overflowing basket of supplies and free samples the hospital had given them. One of the rubbery bright yellow toys was trying to climb over the edge. Harry gave it a nudge back inside. It shook its fuzzy ears at him and burrowed under a package of Neverfull Nappies.

"Ready to go?" Snape stopped beside him to ask, hand coming to rest on his shoulder.

Harry looked up and nodded. He was holding on so far today, and felt hopeful it would last. 

At home, Harry parked himself on a couch with the latest editions of the Daily Prophet but read little of it in lieu of observing Snape attempting to entertain Arcadius while Candide unpacked the basket from the hospital and opened a few gifts that had arrived by owl overnight.

When Candide stood up with the intent of checking whether the quilt from her great aunt would match the drapes in the baby's room, Snape said to her, "You should not be exerting yourself quite so much, I believe."

Candide folded the blanket and sat back down beside it. "It's hard to sit still. There's so much to do."

Brow furrowed, Snape asked, "What is there to do?"

Arcadius fussed just then. With deliberate motions, Snape moved him to his lap, facing him, long fingers supporting his head. "His needs are really quite simple."

Arcadius put a hand in his mouth and began turning pink, looking ready for a really good cry.

"Want me to take him?" Candide asked.

"He does seem to prefer you," Snape said, but he did not move to give him over, despite the rising noise.

Candide rose and fetched him, curled within her arm, he quieted immediately. "Maybe if you were a source of food, too, he'd like you better," she pointed out as she settled back on the couch.

"I know a potion for that," Snape informed her.

Harry interrupted with, "That I'd pay to see."

Candide laughed. "Ever brewed it?" she pointedly asked Snape.

"Of course."

"Really?" Arcadius was deciding that his current location was not optimal either and began fussing again. Candide swung him lightly and he shifted to cooing. "To what purpose did you put it?"

"I sold it." Snape crossed his legs and sat back with a haughty attitude. "I do not know what purpose it was eventually put to, and I did ask at the time, as I was curious. I suspect it was something boring . . . cross-dressing or something."

Candide set Arcadius down to fetch up a fallen rattle. She demonstrated it to the baby and offered it. It was flipped aside immediately along with some serious foot kicking. "I'm with Harry," she said, "I'd pay some serious Galleons to see you nursing Arcadius."

Snape rolled his eyes and stood up. "Perhaps I shall go and see if the new quilt is suitable with the drapery."

"While you are at it, maybe we should move the changing table down here." She pointed to the space under the stairs. "I'm thinking that we probably won't be in the baby room much, at least for a few months. I mean, I wouldn't want to leave him alone in there, and we'll be in here most of the time . . ." She sounded strangely uncertain. "Don't you think?"

Snape looked around the room, which resembled a pastel Christmas present explosion more than anything. "Seems likely. I will bring down a few things."

Harry opened the newspaper again and read Ginny's interview with him. Her writing read much the way she spoke, but her description of him seemed like that of someone he did not know. Did she really see him that way, he wondered. She closed with:

At this point, rumors will always be circulating about Harry and there is precious little he can do to convince the Wizarding public at large that they are untrue, no matter how absurd they may seem to those who know him well. As a long time friend of Harry Potter, this writer continues to be saddened that he is so broadly misunderstood.

Harry precisely folded the paper back up along the original creases before setting it on the floor, the only open spot. Arcadius was again demonstrating his refusal to be placated by toys for longer than ten seconds at a go. Candide jiggled a fuzzy bunny before his nose, eliciting a series of synchronized kicks. 

Harry watched this with harmlessly flitting thoughts, emotions nestled safely in a past too distantly grey for an adult mind to get purchase against them. He did not want to move, even when his eyes grew heavy and playtime shifted to feeding time and back again. 

Pillowing his head on his crooked arm, Harry pulled his feet up on the couch, half reclined on the end cushion, and closed his eyes. The babble from adults and baby alike continued, narrating his vague, floating thoughts. 

A roof-beam creaked in the wind, and sleet began pummeling the windows in pulses. The noise masked the room's voices and lulled Harry into a drowse.

Snape held the pram wheels he was assembling and paused to watch Harry sleep. The wind made the beams creak louder and the sound of the rain on the slate overhead permeated the high room. The sound sent Arcadius into limp dreamland too, deep enough that he remained asleep after being placed on an empty couch cushion. 

Harry curled his legs up closer, prompting Snape to stand and dig out one of the soft fuzzy blue blankets from a store sack and drape it over him. He returned to his seat, checking on Harry between pondering instructions that insisted in flashing red letters at the top of each page that magic was not recommended for assembly. 

Snape was just deciding that his skills at magic were more than likely sufficient to avoid damaging the item's built-in Charms when the beating rain eased, but it left the wind alone to moan around the window sashes and toss the shutters with a bang, making Harry stir.

Smoke drifted out of the fireplace, fogging the room. Harry opened his eyes to watch Snape stand to check it.

"Isn't that charmed against downdrafting?" Candide asked. 

Snape's hair swished as he nodded. He bent down to peer up the flue, hovered another log on, and remained beside the hearthstone while it caught and helped lift the air. But before he could step away, another round of grey smoke came billowing out. 

"Do you know a better backdraft protection charm, Harry?" Snape asked.

Harry turned his head without lifting it. "You expect I would?"

Snape was crouched now, checking the position of the damper after using a Flame Freezing Charm on the logs. "I thought perhaps from Ravenclaw's book."

"Oh." Harry thought back in his mind. "Yeah." He closed his eyes and visualized the book. "Er, Constatus something, or um . . ." He cleared his mind and waited for the memory to come, imagined flipping through the pages of the reluctant book.

"I could have guessed that part," Snape drawled lightly.

Harry still did not lift his head, but lifted his arm to gesture. "Inchoatacarbonariae Constatus, but the wand motion was a downward spiral for some reason."

"Interesting. In which direction, clockwise?" 

Harry shrugged, not remembering.

"Perhaps anticlockwise to match the coriolis effect," Snape muttered. He attempted the spell and there was no magical flare back, implying it had taken. He stepped back to watch the fire burning. "We'll see if that holds. Miserable weather we are having, even by normal standards."

Harry glanced critically at his baby blue covers before tugging them up around his neck and settling in to close his eyes again. The rain picked up to fall the hardest yet and Harry drifted off.

- 888 -

The next afternoon, the weather came in behind visitors who ducked as they came inside, standing straight to give over their cloaks.

"Wotcher, Harry," Ginny greeted him as she shook out her hair. "I'm glad it's nicer in London than here."

Aaron gave his cloak an stylish flip over his arm before presenting it. "My good man, you continue to play House Elf." 

Under his other arm, Aaron carried a large box covered in cavorting yellow and pink toy bears. Ginny took it from him and presented it to Harry before pulling it back again. "Oh, I guess I should give it to the new mother."

Aaron elbowed her in the ribs. "Methinks you are too accustomed to giving Harry presents."

Ginny rolled her eyes and pushed by them. 

"How is training?" Harry asked Aaron, feeling a twinge as he did so.

"Harder without you there. Rodgers picks on the rest of us more." He stretched his neck as he said this. 

Aaron bent over the swaying bassinet placed beside the couch. "Well, if it isn't the latest little wizard," he announced.

Arcadius gave a kick and a gurgle. 

"He seems to like new faces," Candide observed, leaning over to catch a finger in the baby's fist.

Everyone leaned over. Arcadius looked over each of them and gave the air more kicks.

When they tired of leaning around the bassinet, Ginny sat down beside Harry. "What'd you think of the article?" she asked.

Harry considered his answer. "It was okay."

Ginny exhaled and leaned back. "That's about what my editor said too, but I expect for different reasons. She wants more controversy." 

She gave Harry a thoughtful look, behind which Harry could read the prophecy he had told her from the other Plane. Harry sat back as well. He should not have told her. The frame of mind that had led him to confessing it had been a weak one. But at least she was unlikely to say anything, for now. 

"Harry lacks controversy?" Aaron asked, striding over. Snape's eyes followed him, then glanced at Harry, who caught him looking and hardened his gaze. Aaron sat in one of the straight backed chairs only recently cleared of newly unpacked baby goods. "Dark wizards never lack for controversy," Aaron quipped, studying his nails and Harry beyond them.

As he stared at his friend picking lint off his robes in between admiring his fingers, Harry thought that his plans should be bigger, that Percy was too small to bother with.

Ginny nudged him on the arm. "Harry?"

Harry forced a smile onto his face. "Yeah?"

Aaron teased, "Don't disturb him, he's finalizing his grand plans for world domination."

"I don't want to dominate the world," Harry said. "That sounds boring. Not a long-term challenge, really."

Ginny laughed, making Harry realize his statement could be believed to be a joke.

Arcadius' babbling grew fussy and Candide picked him up to walk with him. Snape stood and took him instead, pacing along the short wall of the main hall. 

Ginny leaned into Harry's shoulder to quietly say, "There's a sight I'd never imagined seeing."

Harry watched his guardian pace, patting the closely cuddled infant as he went. His sharp profile dipped out of view now and then, pressed into the soft blankets bundled around the baby. 

Harry's throat closed up, and he struggled to swallow. "Yeah," he said, but he wanted to say something more about Ginny not really knowing Snape. He held back out of a sense of loyalty that further confused his thoughts. 

"You should open the present," Ginny insisted after Candide finished refolding the things that had piled up around her.

With a pop of over-strained Spellotape, a stuffed animal emerged from the box when the paper was removed. It was a Pegasus about five feet high, with sparkling sapphire eyes and shiny silver quilted wings.

"He's a self storing toy," Aaron said, "the only kind my mum would ever buy."

He waved his wand at it, and it leapt up and galloped to the corner of the room, where it reared up, wings spread, and froze that way.

"All your toys were like that?" Ginny demanded.

"You make it sound like a good thing," Aaron laughed. "When I was bad, one wave sent my entire room of toys out of reach. I think it was the only reason I wasn't too lazy to learn any spells at all. I was tired of losing my things."

- 888 -

The next morning was quieter. Harry sat on the couch reading the newspaper, and feeling out of sorts with happenings at the Ministry. He knew what was printed barely scratched the surface of what was actually going on, and it bothered him to feel so ignorant.

Arcadius lay asleep on a cushion between him and Candide, who had a book open, but had not turned a page in it for half an hour. Her attention remained fixated on the baby, who lay still enough for instinctive concern, but with a healthy pink complexion. 

Harry set the paper aside and watched him too. "Is he warm enough like that?" Harry asked, thinking the baby's yellow outfit not very thick, even if it was fuzzy. The wind had died down today, but winter had come on again, and it leached through the stone walls with cold fingers.

"He's a little furnace. Feel."

Harry put a hand on Arcadius' surprisingly solid torso. He felt warm, it was true. He also still felt strange, that low medley of a magical hum still fluttered around him. 

Snape stepped in from the drawing room and Candide stood and said to him, "If you want to watch him, I'm going to take a desperately needed bath."

Harry looked up, wondering that she had not simply left himself to watch. Snape's gaze locked on his own as he said, "Of course," and swooped in to take Candide's place.

When the door to the toilet closed in the distance, Harry asked, "She doesn't trust me?"

Not looking up from studying Arcadius' utterly still sleep, Snape said, "If he began fussing, what would you do?"

"Come and get you, I suppose."

Snape shot him a raised brow.

"And what are you going to do if he wakes up hungry?" Harry said. When Snape resisted a wry smile, Harry offered, "I can fetch you some potion."

Snape crossed his arms and sat straight. "You will not."

Harry, grinning now, said, "I dare you."

Snape said, "Nappies are as involved as I wish to get with digestion for now."

"After pickling all those rat brains and hedgehog livers all those years, nappies shouldn't be any trouble."

"One would think, but somehow . . ."

Harry laughed lightly and rested his hand on the fuzzy warmth of the baby's abdomen again, immediately reminded of the hum. Part of him thought he should say something, but an indefinable worry held him back. A wave of protective instinct for the sleeping babe washed through him, making him lock his jaw tight.

Snape said, "If you want to hold him, go ahead."

"I don't want to wake him up," Harry said. 

"It is not a problem," Snape said, sounding doting.

"It's okay," Harry insisted. "I really expect he'll be hungry when wakes up."

"Ah, well, never mind for now then."

- 888 -

That evening an owl dropped a package on the sideboard for Harry before demanding a strip of meat from the platter of cooling roast Candide was still nibbling at.

Harry recognized the Twins' flowing iridescent ink on the label and a sweep of dread passed through him. He had set these things in motion but now resisted their momentum. He stood without explaining why and took the package up to his room. 

The Decorator Cube stood about two inches high, with curious curves and gouges marring the faces of it. As per the instructions Harry set it in the center of the floor and stepped back to open and shut the bedroom door, which would trigger it to activate. The lamplight sparkled into dark red, rich velour and dark stained wood crawled over the familiar surfaces of his room, starting from the floor, then up the walls, until it met on the ceiling just above the cube and settled down flat. Harry spun to study the illusion in all directions. It was close, quite close, to what he remembered. The desk was not as grand and shiny perhaps and the curtains not as absurd, but it certainly would do. He felt around on the floor with his foot and found the cube. The only way to shut it off was to stick it in a dark box, which Harry did, pressing the lid tight until the last stabbing beam of red light leaking out from under it went dead.

Tomorrow would be Sunday, a better day for the exchange than today. Harry's instincts berated him for stalling after all this time, but he stifled them and pulled out a quill and parchment to write a letter to Tonks with a simple message saying the time and the place where he expected her to bring Mr. Weasley, and more Aurors if she wished. If Ma Dame sent a few underlings, if she came herself, even, Harry would also be getting even for what happened to Aaron. It felt too clean, though. If something were to befall Aaron's tormentors it should be more than simple arrest by the Ministry. It should be something horrible. And long. Long and horrible. Harry's mind flitted from one idea to the next as he held off on addressing the envelope he flipped in his fingers. 

He now wondered if he should have found a way to get to The Boss rather than working with Mr. Weasley at all. The Boss taking Ma Dame captive would begin to approach equitable treatment for what she had done. Snape's advice about having only one branch involved at a time made Harry scribble out Tonks' address and hand the letter over to Hedwig. She nodded several times before taking off with it, as if his pet agreed, or was bowing in supplication. Harry shut the window on the cold air invading his room and returned downstairs.

Harry was lost far enough in thought to make Snape ask, "Everything all right?"

Harry nodded, and a minute later, brought Candide's head up with a snap, when he said, "Evil wizards have to want something. Like you said, they have to have great ideas."

Dryly, Snape returned, "You do not have great ideas?"

Harry shook his head, thinking that revenge on Percy, while fun and appropriate, felt a bit pedestrian. It's just a start, another voice said. When word gets around, it will build respect and fear, in the right people. The plan paled in comparison to thoughts of returning to that other Plane where he could stretch his full power without limits. This idea warmed Harry's insides enough to make them squirm just a little. With Snape home for the month, he had plenty of time to do just that.

Arcadius gave a coo of delight at getting his ring-shaped rattle offered to him for the umpteenth time. Unfortunately, he bonked himself in the face with it and broke into a breathy cry. Candide lifted him up to her shoulder and patted him reassuringly. 

"Your kid," Harry teased Snape.

"That is how learning happens, I believe," Snape replied serenely. "As long as it is not permanently scarring."

Harry needed to talk to his assistants, to make further arrangements. Instead he sat watching baby care. As it grew completely dark outside the small windows and he was running out of evening, Harry stood. "I have to go talk to someone," he said, voice carefully neutral.

Snape nodded, and returned to his reading. Harry hesitated before the couch, on the cusp of bending his knees to sit again and confess that he did not feel much like going off to summon his servant. His one pitiful servant. But with a deep breath, he strode to the front hall for his cloak and slipped away from there, rather than risk facing them again.

Harry reversed out the Dark Plane into Belinda's flat and found it empty. He strode to the center of the room and turned in a circle before planting his feet and tilting his head back. The stale air in the room made him wrinkle his nose. It did not seem like the Belinda he knew to let the cleanliness of the flat slip so. 

With distaste, Harry reached inside himself and sent a song in the direction of the shadow contorting in the underworld of his mind. The shadow reacted, stretching and jumping about, but it did not come closer. Harry huffed in annoyance and tried to lure in the shadow by reaching in its direction. That did not work either. 

Harry rubbed his eyes and considered what to try next, feeling impatience turning to anger. The shadow jerked in his mind, then jerked again and with a pop, Slowdraw appeared before the television. He crouched over his knees, head angled uncomfortably, arms wrapped over him for protection. 

Harry shook his head in disgust. "Where's your friend?" he asked.

Slowdraw pointed with his fist off behind him, poking the air a few times before managing to say, "He's . . . he's waiting for me."

"Fine. This is what I want you to do. Tomorrow at noon . . . are you listening?"

Slowdraw nodded violently, neck contorting far over in the other direction now. 

"I want you to bring Percy Weasley to the warehouse tomorrow, precisely at noon. Walk him through the entrance routine we set up, and bring him to the box. It'll be set up as the boss's office. Got all that? Noon."

Slowdraw nodded. "You want that we don' let anyone follow 'im, then?"

"I want you to pretend to do that, but don't actually do that. Mess it up."

Slowdraw's brow bunched up painfully. "What?"

Harry spoke more slowly, ignoring the desire building in his wand hand to simply whack the simpleton before him with a Blasting Curse. "Pretend to run the spells to prevent tracking when you bring him to the warehouse, but don't make them work. I want him followed, but not suspicious about it. Got it?"

"Oh. Yeah," Slowdraw's shoulders fell in relief upon understanding. 

"Tell your partner all that, so there are no mix ups." Harry imagined the Ministry descending, if they chose to. "After you deliver Percy, get scarce. Got it? So nothing bad happens to you. There may be some fighting."

In a tiny voice, Slowdraw, brows knitting again, said, "Thank you."

"Right," Harry said dismissively. "Go on. You should have time to locate Percy Weasley by tomorrow. I hear he doesn't hide himself at all. Tell him the boss will be expecting him to have the goods."

Slowdraw nodded while bowing and Apparated away without meeting Harry's eyes. In the wake of his departure the room felt overly still. Gratified that he could push someone useful around so easily, Harry headed back for home. 

Snape studied Harry a moment when he arrived, but returned to his reading without so much as a change in expression. Harry sat, stiff backed, on the couch edge, feeling antsy. He blinked rapidly; it seemed brighter in the room than expected.

"The chandelier is fully lit," Harry said. 

Snape and Candide both looked up at the ring of candles suspended on a chain over their heads. "Winky must have thought we needed it," Candide said, waving it out, which left only the halos around the three lower lamps. Candide carefully lifted Arcadius and stood up. "Time to try for some sleep anyway. Coming?" she asked Snape.

"In a while," Snape replied.

Candide swished off in her long dressing gown. After the bedroom door upstairs clicked closed, Snape asked, "Everything all right?"

Harry sat rod straight, knees pinching his hands together. "Yes." He shaped more words before speaking them, making certain they were safe. "I'm trapping Percy tomorrow, at noon."


"Is it?" Harry asked, staring at the stone wall before him, the generations of mortar were mapped out in the overlapping shades of it. "Then what'll I do?"

Snape closed the book he had open and set it aside. "Once you have proven your point about Percy, you do not wish to return to training?"

The part of him that liked plotting screamed against it. "I don't think so," Harry said. "I don't want to be Rodgers' plaything again."

Snape's robes shushed as he sat back and crossed his legs. "Is that you speaking? It doesn't sound like your kind of answer."

Harry suffered an acute moment of distrusting Snape, and waited for it to fade. "Does it matter?"

"It may very well not," Snape calmly replied. "In which case, the situation has changed some from how I imagined it."

Harry looked away from him more, at the door to the drawing room. Something inside him scrambled up a hill of shifting sand, but soon enough the glass bulb it inhabited would be crushingly full of sand and crawling at all would be impossible.

Snape waited patiently for an answer before standing and moving to sit beside him. He clasped his hands together, tucked into the heavy sleeves of his winter robe.

Harry kept his gaze fixed elsewhere. "You are going to say something strategically patronizing," he prompted.

"No. I am just trying to provide you with some companionship, since you do not have much. I assume if there were anything else you needed, you would ask for it."

"I could use a little potion to sleep," Harry said, wanting to be well-rested for tomorrow.

Snape stood without hesitation and disappeared into the toilet. While he waited, Harry paged through a special baby issue of Witch Weekly from several years ago. He flipped by battered pages of round-cheeked infants in miniature professional Quidditch team outfits, complete with pads. This was followed by an advertising spread of baby baskets suitable for hanging on a broomstick. Swings safely wide on hard turns! Harry was glad he had not seen anything like it among the packages the household had acquired the last few days.

Snape returned with a cup and presented it with two hands. Harry thought that solicitous until he discovered the cup was hot. "Thanks," he said.

Snape rested his hands on the arm of the couch, leaning over, which made his hair curtain the sides of his face. "If you need anything tomorrow, you will let me know."

"I'm glad you're home to keep an eye on Candide."

"I will be on my guard. For certain." He straightened. "Good night, Harry," he said.

Harry put his nose close to the cup and his nostrils filled with the scents of blueberries and tar. He decided to carry the unfamiliar concoction up to bed, just in case it worked too fast. 

- 888 -

Harry stared beyond the mirror on his wardrobe door and straightened his robes with one last tug. His mind felt sharp, his thoughts narrow. His father's old invisibility cloak slipped through his fingers when he bundled it up to stash it in his breast pocket, and he needed a violent move to catch it all. Patting its companionable bulk in his breast pocket, he slipped away to the warehouse and began coloring the hanging cloth to jet black. That finished, he paced the broad floor. A fine grit rasped under his shoes; the sound gave shape to the vast space around him.

Harry checked the periphery spells on the walls, idly killing time without thinking too hard. A sound brought his head around and he found Tonks in the center of the floor, looking around.

"Did you bring Mr. Weasley?" Harry asked.

"He's on his way." She studied the overhead walkways before returning her stoic gaze back to him. She began to pace, waving her wand back and forth with stiff movements.

"Hello, Harry," Mr. Weasley's voice called across the warehouse. He cast a few spells ahead of himself before continuing. They lit the dust into sparkles of red.

When he faced Harry, he said, "You have been plotting on your own, I hear."

Harry, trying to avoid getting caught up in complex emotion, said, "Someone from Ma Dame's branch of Durumulna is going to be brought here, to sell something to The Boss. I thought you might want to see the transaction."

Mr. Weasley smiled faintly, seeming patronizing. "Sounds like a fine arrangement, Harry. Tonks said there might be more arrivals than that?"

"Ma Dame may decide to descend, since she will be able to trace her underling coming here."

Mr. Weasley nodded as if this was already clear. "Yes. That sounds about right. We have a few extras in the surrounding streets, just in case. We'd certainly appreciate such an opportunity." They measured each other, Harry wondering whether the past, where his best friend's father looked out for him unconditionally, was as far gone as it felt right then.

Mr. Weasley glanced up and let his eyes trace the setup. "This is what The Boss' hideout looks like, eh?"

Electricity ran over Harry's back, setting him on alert. "So I hear," he replied, all thoughts of the past obliterated.

Harry walked him through the arrival. It was about a quarter hour before noon when they stood in the "office" with the Decorator Cube activated. 

Mr. Weasley took a seat in the chair behind the desk. "Who's playing The Boss?"

Replied Harry, "I was going to."

Mr. Weasley slipped back in the chair and swung it back and forth. "Why don't you let me? Tonks can work up a disguise on me, she knows at least three of the appearances he is reputed to use." 

"That's a great idea," Tonks said.

Harry had not thought of that. "We need a house elf too, in a lacy red placemat." He turned to Tonks. "You can make yourself smaller, right?"

"A tad, for a short time." She eyed him and put her hands on her hips. "A lacy red placemat?" she asked, disbelieving. 

Harry shrugged, pretending helpless on this point and enjoying her disgust. She backed up to the divan in the corner and said, "If I lounge in a tablecloth as a housecoat, I can hide my size better, and my costume," she added, making a point. 

Mr. Weasley glanced at his watch before snapping it closed and pocketing it again. "I need a disguise before you do yours, Ms. Tonks."

Tonks heaved up and in seconds had Mr. Weasley done up as a portly, sagging man in a fine suit. Mr. Weasley tugged with a sour face at the tie he now wore. He squeezed into the seat behind the desk, adjusting his folds with a grunt, then waved Tonks into the corner.

She kicked back in a fiery red tablecloth with strawberries on the edging and said, "I'll change the rest when we get a knock on the door, not a second sooner."

Harry pulled out his invisibility cloak, but first he stepped up before the desk and said, "You'll leave my two assistants alone, correct? They've been useful."

"We will. For now, Harry," he replied gently.

A surge of annoyed respect at his holding his ground rose in Harry. Rather than continue the stare-down, he tugged his cloak over himself and took a spot along the wall between a copper brazier and rich curtains that hid a liquor cabinet. He brooded there in private, battling with himself over whether this course was best. The more his instincts beat on him for relinquishing control, the more stubbornly he stood there, doing nothing.

They all waited in silence. Mr. Weasley took a cigar out of the box on the desk, sniffed it, and shook his head. The room's illusions held only sight and feel, and not odor or taste. Across from Harry, a cabinet full of little ceramic figures from history flickered and wavered before re-stabilizing. 

Mr. Weasley gave a sniff and pulled the unlit cigar from his mouth to point with. "Looks like my sons' work."

"Who else?" Tonks replied before Harry could. She was trying various nail colors on a distorted, elf hand. Orange and pink changed to red with stars. 

A knock came on the door. Mr. Weasley sat forward, then sat back and chomped on the cigar again. He tapped his finger on his cheek a count of five before saying, "Yeah!" gruff and sharp, familiar voice distorted by the cigar. Tonks shrank down to about double elf size, but her ears and nose were convincing. She tossed the large cloth over her legs and crouched down.

The door opened and Hummer gestured roughly for Percy to step inside. Percy slunk in, studying the room in keen detail which made Harry bite his lip that the cube should fail just then. It held.

Mr. Weasley, cigar still in place, said, "I ain't got all day, kid. Wastin' my time is not a healthy activity. Just a bit of advice."

Under his cloak, Harry's brows shot up. 

"You really The Boss?" Percy asked disdainfully. 

Mr. Weasley froze, but not in worry or surprise. He put his hand down on the desk, flat and hard. "You got a lot of unhealthy habits, ya little punter. We have a transaction, I believe. Your position is currently quite tenuous." He leaned forward in the chair, making the desk seem smaller by lording over it with the bulky disguise. "The only way out of here is through me. That can be a happy ending for you or the ending for you. Your choice."

Harry pushed his shoulders back from leaning into the sight of his former boss behaving so, well, boss-like. 

When Percy merely pursed his lips, Mr. Weasley went on, and this time Harry could see that his act was powered at least in part by his keen disappointment in the son standing before him. This was not the scene Harry had imagined. Mr. Weasley was converting his hurt neatly into razor sharp anger. 

"Where you stand now, young man, I can take the goods off your cold corpse and none will be the wiser."

"I don't have it on me," Percy retorted.

In slow motion, dragging out the tension, Mr. Weasley sat back. The cold cigar flicked to the other side of his mouth. "Then we have no business, do we?" The chair squeaked. Behind Percy, the wall by the door rippled in response to the sound. Mr. Weasley waited for it to go smooth again, a delay which played on Percy enough to shine his brow with sweat.

"Slouch!" Mr. Weasley said, gesturing at Hummer. "Take this abuser of our kind privileges out of my sight. Remind him to watch his back as I don't take kindly to those unable to deal fairly with me."

Hummer responded to his new moniker without a flicker and gave Percy a rough tug to the door. 

After they were gone, Mr. Weasley sat as if waiting, and the room remained still. Harry's instincts berated him for letting someone else run the show, but he had got what he had come for, Percy had revealed his double life. Trouble was, with Mr. Weasley involved, there was no violence, so it was all a bit of a let down. Harry tossed his cloak off his head and onto his shoulders like a cape. He wanted to say something, even I told you so, but it would be a sign of weakness to do so. It would imply he cared what Mr. Weasley thought, and Harry was above these people.

Minutes ticked by, but nothing happened. No attack, or even a sound, came from without. Mr. Weasley stood up, tossed the cigar forlornly onto the desk and signaled that Tonks could return to normal. "And fix me too," he said, patting his great belly.

Back to normal, Mr. Weasley stepped up to Harry. "What was he selling, anyway?"

"My old wand," Harry said with a rush of pleasant revenge that almost made everything all right with his plans.

Mr. Weasley's chin lifted. After a space he said, "The one he swapped with yours long enough to give it to our prisoner, who used it to kill Moody."

Harry glanced at Tonks, who pinned her gaze on the floor. That lie still stood. "I assume," Harry replied. Tonks now owed him even more. Harry licked his lips.

Now came some of the pain Harry expected to extract from his old boss. Sadness crept into his distant gaze, deepening the light wrinkles around his eyes. He patted Harry on the arm and turned to the door, but stopped before opening it. "You'll debrief Harry?"

"Sure," Tonks replied. 

But when they were alone, Tonks picked fuzz off her cloak a few minutes. "I can write it up without an interview," she coldly said, and abruptly walked out.

Harry exhaled. The walls flickered and warped. Perhaps he could use the setup to get even with Ursie. Perhaps he needed greater ideas than that. His instincts offered up notions of world domination through magic, but Harry did not particularly find much rational appeal in that, so he pushed them aside. He realized now as he stared at his own hand clenching and unclenching in the red infused room that what he wanted was a better understanding of what was within. What exactly had he inherited?

Harry dropped his hand. There was someone he could see, perhaps talk to, who knew something of this. Harry Disapparated for home, thinking ahead with such distraction that he did not respond to Snape's greeting when he arrived.

"Harry?" Snape prompted loudly as Harry stood there in the main hall occasionally glancing abstractly at his left hand.

Harry brought himself to the present, away from plotting ways of convincing the French prison warden to let him see Lockhart, preferably alone, preferably with his wand still in hand. "What?"

Snape kindly asked, "How did it go?"

Harry shrugged. "Didn't go as planned."

Candide must have been off napping because it was quiet elsewhere in the house. Snape checked that the self-rocking bassinet was secure and stood to approach Harry. "They rarely do," Snape commiserated. "Have you worked out your next move?"

Harry did not think there was a next move with regard to Percy, beyond challenging him to a duel to the death. That sounded mildly interesting. Without careful setup, though, it could land him in inconvenient trouble. Perhaps he could bait Percy into attacking him, in front of a crowd, so that when Harry eliminated him it would seem to be self-defense, or at least warranted.


Harry looked up.

"You were doing it again."

Harry gestured at the room. "I was just thinking."

"I will spare you any commentary about how much effort that appears to take."

Harry snorted, pleased with this comment, since it lent sincerity to Snape's unusually kind attitude. Harry moved away, intending to take a peek at Arcadius, perhaps try out the new toys laid out in an arc before the couch, but something happened to his legs. His knees buckled and smacked the hard floor a split instant before black ice shot through his heart.

"Harry!" came Snape's stunned voice. 

Harry was only dimly aware of hands rolling him onto his side, but his limbs quivered too violently for him to remain there. He arched and flailed while his mind reeled, uncomprehending. He tried to draw in more than a gasp, and couldn't. Panic set in. Fear of dying so great his vision blacked out, wiping away his tilted view of the long boards making up the floor, the roof beams rising overhead to meet in a point, the nearby lamp looming like a tarnished pinnacle. Harry knew all those things were still there only because he could feel Snape's fingers on his arm.

The pain grew unbelievably intense, then went to nothing. Harry sucked a desperate breath into burning lungs and tasted the polished wood floor. Then he held the next breath as the contorted shadow slipped free from him. It rippled over the floor of the forest in his mind, and then it shrank away with a tiny pop, into nothing. Harry let out a cry at the rush of emptiness filling in behind it chilling his heart.

Breathing better with the pain and fear lessened, Harry's shoulders dropped to the floor. He turned his head to the side. Snape was stroking his back.

"Harry, what's happening?"

Harry did not want to tell Snape that he knew Slowdraw was dead. His body went rigid again, this time with the urge for action; Ma Dame must have attacked the warehouse after the rest of them had departed. Slowdraw and Hummer must have come back, despite Harry's instructions.

Harry pushed to his feet, muscles quivering now with frantic energy. "I have to go," he muttered, unsteady on his feet.

"To St. Mungo's I assume you mean?" Snape asked, voice burdened with parental concern.

"No. I'm sorry." 

With that heartfelt apology, more to his own self who wanted nothing more than hand himself over for care, Harry Disapparated.

Next Chapter: 49

Harry crouched again and patted Tridant on the shoulder. He groaned and turned his head to face Harry. His close-cut, wheat-colored hair had rivulets of red coursing through it. Harry glanced around, but no one approached. Tridant should not have been alone here, Harry considered, given that he was only a first year. The battle beyond the grey wood of the splintered pallets faded. Shouting echoed, then another burst of spells, then just a few sparse sizzles criss-crossed the air.

Tridant's radiance leaked away into the dusty, uncaring vastness around them. The loss of it gave Harry a shiver where he was raw from losing his servant. Harry rubbed a hand over the blood-slick, stiff hair. Tridant opened his eyes. He stared up at Harry without surprise or even recognition. Like Death himself might be greeted, Harry thought with a rush of heat through his limbs.

Author's Notes: I have to thank the betas yet again. They really came through on a rough chapter (took two days to apply fixes!). Without Bettina, Avyncentia, Madeline, Jen, Cheelakeep, Steve, Michael, Ally and Nana, this story would be a pale shadow of what it is. Thanks you guys!

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