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Chapter 52 — Magical Mercury

"Mother," Snape intoned as Winky walked the front door backward to open it wide.

Anita stood outside on the stoop in the early evening grey-blue light, smiling in a faintly pained manner. Winky closed the door behind her and took her cloak with a small curtsy. Anita said, "I don't want to be in the way, so I hope things have settled down with the new little one."

Snape nodded vaguely. "As much as they will, I expect."

Candide sat holding a faintly fussing Arcadius near the wizard wireless, which emitted plucky guitar music. Candide shifted him in her arms to tweak the wireless quieter and met Snape's mother halfway across the room.

"Well, look at him," Anita said. "Isn't he just the spitting image of you, Severus."

Harry, up on the balcony, stopped to watch the interchange below.

"Aren't there any photographs of you at this age, Severus?" Candide asked. "I've never seen any around the house."

"No," came Snape's clipped reply.

Anita gave another pained smile and held out her hands. "May I hold him?"

Candide gave the baby over and Anita walked around, bouncing him lightly. Arcadius chewed on his whole hand and fussed while humming. Anita glanced around as she walked. "You have every candle in this place lit. It's like a party in here."

Candide gave Snape a curious glance, but he simply shrugged. Harry took this as a cue to come downstairs. He waved out the candles in the holders on the wall as he passed them. The last holder in the line, with all fresh candles, stood unlit. Harry stopped to consider at it while he put his wand away.

Anita gave Harry an uncertain greeting as he approached the bottom of the staircase. She sat down with the baby and Harry sat across from her, where he proceeded to gauge every move and expression she made.

"How are you, Harry?" Anita asked.

Her bluntness made Harry pause in giving his answer. "Good," he casually replied.

Tea arrived. They discussed the baby. Anita presented Arcadius with a little handmade doll. He immediately began gumming the doll's purple conical hat.

The conversation remained in the baby realm and Harry was just considering heading back up to his room when Anita said, seemingly out of the blue, "That woman certainly has it in for you, Harry."

"Who?" Harry asked. The others had fallen silent and turned their heads to listen. Then Harry heard it: Skeeter's tinny voice drifting through the room, sounding adamant and like she talked through a false smile.

Snape stood and strode over to the wireless to turn the dial up.

" . . . so, thanks to my friends here at Magical Mercury and my friends out there in Wizard Wireless Land, we'll be bringing you the news you won't get anywhere else, every week at this time. For our inaugural show this week we'll be doing part one of a . . . I don't know how many parts this will end up being." She laughed, which sounded like a coughing breeze hitting her microphone. Then she must have leaned in close, because her voice rasped. "It all depends on Mr. Potter, how many parts this special investigation has."

"Turn it off," Candide said.

Harry shook his head. "I want to hear what she says." His eyes met Snape's, who stood with his hand on the device's knob. Snape dropped his arm and returned to his seat.

Skeeter prattled on, not coming to any kind of point beyond her thrill with getting to have a show. Anita said, "She came to talk to me."

"Did she?" Snape asked sharply. He had sat down with his shoulders thrown back, one bent knuckle pressed to his lips.

"She pretended to want to do a special on the coven, but every third question was about you, or Harry."

"And what did you tell her?" Snape asked, all cold strategy now.

"Nothing," Anita insisted, but something about her tone gave away uncertainty. Harry said nothing, settling comfortably into contemplating the best next move against a deserving enemy.

From the wireless, Skeeter was saying, "Now, when you and I associate with a bad crowd we are assumed, automatically, to be part of that bad crowd. Apparently that's not true for some. When you and I are involved in something criminal, or people who don't like us die and the evidence points to us, we get put in prison and we get left there . . ."

"Is she going to come to the point?" Harry asked. He felt annoyed, then angry, but that faded quickly with the soft assurance that emotion should be reserved until the moment of revenge, otherwise it would get in the way.

Candide replied, "She can't fill an hour if she comes to the point."

Harry found Snape's gaze steady upon him. He tried hard not to appear to be reveling in coming to one mind about how important it was to make Skeeter regret knowing Harry at all.

"You have been in a spot of trouble of late," Anita said.

Harry wanted to pledge that Skeeter would regret it, but he held back. "Skeeter is nothing," he said instead. Which was true, or soon to be true. He felt so confident in his ability to bring regret to this enemy that he smiled pleasantly.

Across from him, Snape stiffened and said, "She is quite certain that the public eye makes her invulnerable."

He heard the underlying message. That's what makes it a delicious challenge, Harry thought, mind churning on possibilities, enjoying simply setting the pieces on the chessboard to look them over.

- 888 -

"Harry invited me out for drinks tonight," Hermione said, laughing at the notion of being free enough to just go out just like that. Vineet slipped up to the other side of the desk and stood watching her, following his usual quaintly formal approach to their visits.

Hermione considered tossing Harry's note onto the fire the way she had the one from Professor Snape the day before, because it burned her to read it and in that instant the fire seemed the only hope for eradicating its reality. Harry has gone beyond where I feared he would. That was all it had said. It was no more or less than a warning to an ally, and she still felt grateful he had skipped any specifics. A wave of self-loathing followed; she rightfully should have sought out the specifics.

She put Harry's message down on her desk, noting as she did so that his handwriting seemed better than she remembered. She compared it to her own on the papers beneath it, then to the notes from McGonagall on her lesson plans. Harry's writing better matched McGonagall's with an old-fashioned flourish to it. Hermione swallowed hard and slid the note to the side.

Vineet said, "You will not be going then?"

Hermione shook her head, feeling helpless. "I could ask Professor McGonagall for time off, but using it to go out to a pub would be hard to justify." She also still worried that Harry might test her, and that dread made her wish to visit only when Professor Snape was present.

"Does Harry visit you?" Vineet asked. "I noticed he can do this easily."

"Rarely. Last time he came, I reminisced about our school time together and it made him antsy, so he didn't stay long." She shook her head. "Don't tell anyone that he can Apparate in here, if you would."

"You wish to protect him, but you can no longer face him?" Vineet asked.

Hermione swallowed. "I can face Harry. But . . . we used to fight Voldemort. It was all we did. I can't look at him without feeling too helpless to find words." She closed her eyes a long moment. "I'm not myself anymore either, am I?" She laughed lightly. "Going for drinks will not be of any use, but I will do something. I just don't know what."

Vineet's gaze drifted around the shelf-lined walls. "You do not have your researches out any longer." He spoke carefully, like he wished to tip-toe into this topic.

"Books are meaningless," she whispered.

Vineet stepped around the desk and stood close before her. "Owl me, so I may accompany you on this errand," he said, voice low. "I do not wish you to do so alone."

She smiled painfully. "All I can think to do is reason with him. Think that will work?"

He shook his head. "You found nothing useful in the books?"

"I could hit him over the head with one of them. They're pretty heavy. Otherwise, no."

Her smile faded and she leaned against Vineet, who put his hands around her upper arms and held her gently, not moving.

"I wish Harry would talk to me," she said out of the blue. "He doesn't trust me, or he doesn't trust something. I don't know why he wouldn't trust me. I've never given him reason not to."

"That will be the goal then. If reason is all you have to try, perhaps you should reserve yourself to listening only."

She turned her face into his shoulder so her voice was muffled. "Okay."

- 888 -

Harry peered around the club where he sat with his friends, more pleased to be out of the house than he expected, but only because they were out in Muggle London. Here no one listened to Wizard Wireless and saw fit to peer at him curiously as they had done on Diagon Alley the previous day. If they had stared at him with fear, the attention would have at least felt satisfying. Skeeter had teased her listeners for sixty whole minutes without giving anything away. For someone who sounded so deadly serious, she certainly knew how to make her business into a game. Harry had only resisted hunting her down that evening because Snape insisted that was playing into her hands. She would certainly record the encounter and use it on the next show. Imagining hearing himself giving her any credence held Harry in check, but he still chaffed at his position.

Light poured in from the tall front windows, haloing the hair and gestures of the patrons. Had Harry chosen, he would have picked a seat less in the middle of things, where he could see faces. People at nearby tables turned at Ginny's laughing voice, drawing Harry back too.

"Can you imagine? Mum looked at ME like Why haven't you had any kids yet?" Ginny mimicked her mother, hands propped on her hips, tilting her head back and forth as she spoke. Across from her, Aaron grinned and made a face. "Oh, stop it," Ginny insisted. "And get us another round since you're the one with all the gold."

Aaron slid down from his stool. Ginny leaned forward to quietly add to her friends, "In a cupboard I found a rolling bag full of gold the other day. Just sitting there!"

Ron drained his beer quickly and pushed his mug to the side, then grabbed up Lavender's and did the same. "Two more for us, too!" he called out, then gave a satisfied burp.

Ginny turned to Harry, "Is Lupin coming?"

"He said he might," Harry said, squinting in the direction of the door in the center of the outer wall. Harry had invited a nice variety of people to act as alibis, figuring the more people, the more versions of any story that would get told, if need be.

Aaron was waiting at the bar, rocking up on his toes in impatience for service. Harry leaned over to Ginny and said, "Did you learn anything about Zacundo?"

Ginny cut her sip of beer short, wiped her lips on her sleeve and ducking also said, "Yeah, I did. But not as much as I hoped. I only found clippings in her file, absolutely no interview notes, which is strange." Ginny pulled her handbag off her chair back and pulled out a slip of parchment which had tiny floating images of cut out newspaper articles crammed onto it, in all directions.

Harry turned it this way and that, squinting at it. "What kind of spell made this?"

"Oh, it's a Seer-Ox Charm, but I have too much paper on my desk already, so I really like to fit a lot on one sheet. Sorry. Can you read it okay?"

Harry, nose grazing the paper, glasses pushed tight to his face, read a bit of one article, an interview with an accompanying photograph that was reputed to show Zacundo's house. Harry avidly studied it. "How old is this picture?"

"Probably as old as the article since a staff photographer would have gone along. The date is hand written by the title there." When Harry lowered the paper, she found it with her finger. "It's about twelve years old."

"Oh," Harry said, disappointed. He read a bit more. "Skeeter must really like this lady. Listen to this: Madame Zacundo's exquisite taste in the finer things in life makes her an exemplary witch for all of wizardom to follow. If only more of wizardom, especially the women among us, could manage even half her level of fashionable sense, wizardom would be a more beautiful place."

Aaron had returned. "What'd I miss?"

"Harry reading the home fashion section of the newspaper," Ron said, clinking glasses with Aaron. "So, not much."

Ginny, no longer behaving secretively, said to Harry, "She's glowing because Zacundo is her aunt."

"What?" Harry blurted.

Ginny tugged the paper around in a circle and put it back under Harry's nose. "Godmother, in fact. See here."

Harry read the indicated line. "Oh Ginny, you don't know how happy this makes me." Indeed, he wanted to laugh aloud, but feared what that may sound like in his present state of mind. He folded the paper and put it away, mind churning with ideas.

"Skeeter's really got it in for you. You know she won't ever let up, right?"

"Oh, I know," Harry said. "And I plan to give her good reason for hating me, if I can at all help it. Especially now."

In his pocket, Harry's hand encountered the potion vial and he was reminded that he had plans ready to be implemented. He wondered now if maybe his questions to Percy should change.

"Going to share?" Ginny asked.

"What?" Harry asked, not really listening. "Oh, later. I have to think." Harry leaned low to drink his beer without raising the glass off the table, mind completely elsewhere.

Harry was brought back to his friends' conversation when Lupin and Pamela arrived.

"Hello there, Harry," she said, giving him a firm hug. Something in him tried to be repulsed by her Muggledom, the lacking feel of her, but he forcibly squashed it, angry at it even. Leave me be.

"What?" Pamela asked, spinning back after going to meet Lupin, who was fetching her a stool.

"I said, 'it's good to be me.' You know, having you as a cousin and all."

"That's odd, but . . . sweet, Harry."

Ginny, who had overheard better, was giving him a lowered brow look, but then she shrugged and turned back to Aaron.

Harry, thinking to hide his flush of annoyance at himself, said, "I've got to visit the loo." He glanced around the deep-set space that gradually changed from bar to café to restaurant all the way in the back. "If I can find it."

Before he turned down the corridor that went behind the bar, Harry turned back to see that no one had followed. He locked himself into the second of two stalls, thinking it would make a good return location. In one motion, he tugged his invisibility cloak from his satchel, draped it around his shoulders and slipped into the Dark Plane. With it completely draped down to his feet, he slipped into the Ministry Dungeon.

Harry emerged in the very center of Percy's cell. Percy sat on his bench, staring straight ahead, blinking at nothing. But something was not right and Harry hesitated moving or pulling the cloak clear until he could suss out what it was.

Harry turned slowly, checking around the cell. It looked the same as before. Percy seemed as brainless as before. No . . . Percy seemed . . . not magical at all, all of a sudden. Harry blinked at that, neck straining to look forward through the cloak, his eyelashes catching on the fabric.

Something else was wrong. Harry's feet looked funny: they rippled like steam or heat was emitting from the stones themselves. And the room was rocking to and fro, more severely each disturbing swing of it.

Harry was being hit with a vaporized potion. He immediately slipped away and fell to his knees in the gritty grey underworld. He frantically tugged his vapor-soaked cloak free of his head and sucked air in as deeply as possible, clinging desperately to his tunneling vision. He needed to get to the antidote, and quickly. Harry's heart banged against the inside of his ribs. He had been in this exact situation before, trying to navigate the Dark Plane with only part of his senses working, and last time he ended up very much not where he wanted to be.

Harry's deathly heavy head fell forward onto his hands, crushing his fingers into the grit. His shoulders tried to follow, heaving forward like a wave had tossed him, but he pushed himself shakily back up on numb arms. Creatures were creeping toward him, bodies low, oversized eyes dripping and curious.

Harry could still Apparate, that was safe enough. Drawing in a deep breath and holding it in while the world around him spiraled unnervingly, Harry Apparated, arriving on his hands and knees in the blessedly familiar and trampled area opposite his house. A few creatures scuttled by and stopped to sniff at him and growl faintly. Harry did not care; time ticking away was a bigger enemy.

Again, Harry's arms folded helplessly under him, making him kiss the soil. His stomach tried to rebel from the mismatch between his brain and the world. Refusing from the bottom of his soul to be defeated, he pushed up again, and clumsily wiped the grit off his face. Wet with saliva, it clung to his hand, prickling.

He could do this. And if he failed, if he landed somewhere else, maybe it would be somewhere better, with free Death Eaters, close by. "NO!" Harry growled. "Home. Go home." Drawing upon the last of his reserves he forced his trembling arms and torso to hold him firm for just the long tick of a second. In that second Harry inverted himself.

Harry arrived on the floor of the hall in Shrewsthorpe. He was warm still; he had made it home. The hard floor pressing on his bones rocked still, but it was his, and he let his head rest, finally. Rapid footsteps approached and Snape crouched beside him.

"Gassed . . ." Harry said through sodden lips, vision blacking out as he spoke, then coming back in, narrow and wavering. Snape sniffed at Harry, pressed his nose into Harry's pullover and sniffed deeper, then jumped up and dashed off. Harry, left there folded on the floor, could not be happier to see Candide standing nearby, Arcadius in her arms.

"Home," Harry burbled through numb lips.

"What happened, Harry?" Candide asked, not coming any closer. Wise of her, Harry thought.

Harry shook his head, unable to explain so much with only mumbles to do it with. Snape returned and knelt to force a cup between Harry's teeth, which were clenched closed without his will. Immediately his head cleared, his jaw loosened.

Snape pulled the cup away and violently brushed Harry clear of grit. Then he poured the remainder of the cup over Harry's head, rubbing it into his hair. "You are marked by the smell of the breakdown products," Snape explained to forestall Harry batting him away. "And that certainly won't do if you are suspected."

Snape stood then and with authority, dragged Harry to his feet. "You've most likely been gone too long. Go," he commanded.

Harry, staggering, but nearly himself already, slipped away again. He got one last glance of Snape's intense expression following him out. Harry grabbed up his cloak where he had left it on the ground of the underworld, and used it to return to the far stall of the men's toilet. Stashing it rapidly away, he exited into the empty room, and went to the mirror mounted around the corner from the door to check how he looked after all that.

Harry was brushing his fingers through his mussed hair and checking his clothes for grit, when the door swung hard open and Ron said, "Oh, there you are. Wondered where you went."

Harry glanced around the room in feigned confusion and followed Ron out, heartbeat more rapid even than the music playing over the club's sound system. Harry sauntered to the table behind Ron, face displaying boredom. Everyone looked up at him. Ron, sounding annoyed, said, "He was just fixing his hair."

"Looks great, Harry," Pamela said, face splitting open into a doubtful grin. "Wizards need to discover hair gel. I can send you a tube . . ."

"Water works fine," Harry said, mostly to contribute something because he could see the distinctive outline of a Mohawk approaching from the front. "It's hopeless anyway."

Aaron leaned closer to Pamela and said, "Harry's famous enough he doesn't need to look good. I'm working on getting to that point, myself. I'm terribly jealous of him for that."

Ginny coughed on her beer. "Really, I got the sense you liked spending three hours in front of the mirror every morning."

Tonks stopped at the table and looked them all over. Despite her business-like attitude, Harry innocently said, "Joining us?"

Tonks opened her mouth, but there was a delay in her speaking. She clearly had not expected to find him there. Lying poorly, she said, "Yeah, I am. I could use a pint." And went up to the bar. Despite burying herself two people deep Harry could still see her tug the slate out of her pocket. He looked away just as Tonks glanced back at the table.

Thirsty, Harry drank his beer down while the others talked. Someone pressed a fresh beer into his hands, for which he was grateful. Harry sipped frequently to watch Tonks over the rim of his glass. She was trying to do the same thing to him and had to look away.

When Tonks leaned over to talk to Pamela, Harry leaned over to Ginny, "I have an idea," he said, but his voice slurred. He sat upright and blinked into the brightness from the windows. He felt melted, and disconnected, and really quite good.

"Harry, how many have you had?" Ginny asked with a laugh.

Harry stared into his half-full glass. "I lost count. But I didn't have lunch. That's probably it."

Tonks was watching him more keenly than Harry liked. With a jolt he worried that the residual of the gas in the Dungeon was mixing with the alcohol.

"Why didn't you have lunch?" Ginny asked. "You have a house-elf to make it."

Harry shook his head, and pushed his glass away. "I wasn't hungry," he said, using great willpower to make his voice normal. "I'm not hungry much lately."

Ginny frowned at him. "That's not a good sign, Harry." To Aaron, she said, "Get Harry a basket of chips."

Aaron stood, gave a crisp bow like a servant and went off. "He's such a nut," Ginny said, sounding half affectionate, half tired.

Harry stared at his beer glass, at the blonde liquid streaked with lacy bubbles. He pulled it close again and took another sip. The resulting wash of relaxed disassociation made him feel quite good. He sat there seeing out of his own eyes, but not feeling much of his own body. He felt alone; he missed having lots of shadows close.

Aaron returned with chips. They were pushed over in front of Harry, but everyone helped themselves. Aaron leaned over to Tonks to ask her something. Tonks took a swig of her beer and replied, hand shading her mouth. Harry strained to hear over the general hubbub, but could not. He pretended to listen to Pamela and Lupin's easy going conversation.

Beside him, Ginny stiffened. Her eyes were fixed on Aaron, making Harry believe she had overheard some of the discussion.

Tonks pulled her slate from her pocket and frowned at it. She slid off her seat and abandoned her fresh drink. "I have to go."

An hour later, the rest of the party began finishing drinks and making noises about unfinished things.

"Someone should escort Harry home," Lupin said, eyes glittering with a smile.

"I will," Ginny said.

"Want me to come along?" Aaron asked, sliding over to them.

Harry's feet felt like dead weights. He shuffled out onto the pavement behind Ginny, sucking in the cold wind as a needed refresher. Aaron took Harry's arm like an escort, but since Harry could only half feel his body, this did not matter.

When they reached the nearby alleyway, Harry shook himself loose, suddenly angry. Ginny cut off any remarks Aaron could make with: "I'll see Harry home and catch up with you."

Aaron shrugged, looked Harry up and down, and Disapparated.

Ginny said to Harry, apparently ignoring the dark mood that he could feel reshaping his face, "I can side-along you, if you like."

"I can make it home, Ginny. I've made it home much worse than this."

Ginny dropped her offered hand. "Are you drinking too much, Harry?"

"No. I rarely drink at all."

She frowned more. "If you're certain you can make it. I'll follow, but I'm going to make sure you get there whether you like it or not."

Harry Disapparated to the entryway and arrived with no sense of up and down, so he fell against the wall. A knock sounded at the door just as Snape came into view from the main hall.

Harry stumbled to the door to let Ginny inside.

"See, I'm here." Harry said, demonstrating that his arms were working by waving them. He must look silly, so he stopped.

"Is the baby awake?" Ginny eagerly asked.

"He is," Snape answered from the glowing opening to the rest of the house.

Harry's feet bumbled him inside, and Snape caught him by the arm. "How much did you have to drink?"

"I was going to ask if that stuff you gave me made drink much stronger?" Harry countered, annoyed.

Snape released him. "It should not." Speaking low, directly into Harry's ear, he said, "The vial I gave you for Percy would, however."

Harry felt his pockets and came up with the vial, still intact. Disappointed at this lack of explanation, he pocketed it again and stepped uneasily to the couch.

"Feeling better, Harry?" Ginny asked.

Harry nodded and scrubbed his face with his hands. As odd as he felt all he wanted was more to drink. He watched Ginny bouncing Arcadius in his wire bassinet and making all the same noises other adults did when they came in contact with him.

Ginny prompted Harry, "At the club, you said you had an idea?"

"I did. Yeah." Harry closed his eyes and tipped his head back. Something bumped his shoulder. Snape was holding out a tumbler of pink stuff. Harry stared at it without moving.

"Don't want it?"

"I need the room checked for bugs. And I'd prefer something more to drink."

Snape sat down on the other end of the same couch. "That's not like you, Harry." Snape lifted his arm and ran their now very well-practiced spells.

Harry suddenly remembered who it was like. It was like Belinda. Harry held his hand out for the tumbler and drank it down. Before he swallowed the last sip, his head cleared like a veil being pulled aside by a breeze. Harry stared at the moon sliver of pearly pink in the bottom of the tumbler and considered that dark servants could be rather a hassle. But the thought of releasing Belinda made his chest and hands clench. Harry must have frozen in thought because he started when Snape tugged the glass from his fingers and set it aside.

"What idea did you have?" Ginny asked again, sounding like one trying mask her curiosity with distracted boredom.

Harry rubbed his eyes and stretched his back, pleasantly remembering his plans, which unrolled before him invitingly. "I want you to invite Madame Zacundo out for an interview. Dinner, someplace nice. Tell her you want to write a nice article for the newspaper because you are just learning and want to practice easy stories and you saw in the clippings file . . . is that what you call it . . . you saw that she had not had an interview in a few years. Tell her she can bring a friend if she likes."

Ginny peered at him with no change in expression. "All right."

Harry went on, his audience still and attentive. "I expect she will invite Skeeter along." Harry sat forward. "I'll try to get Bones to go along. Belinda might help with that."

Ginny's eyes widened. "You are saying you can get me an interview with the Minister of Magic?"

"Certainly. Why not?"

Ginny bounced up and came over to him. "Thank you, Harry." She bounced on her toes and bit her lips. "Can I tell Zacundo that the Minister is coming along, you know, in case she doesn't take the bait?"

"Sure," Harry said.

"Should I tell her you are going to be there?"

"No. Absolutely not. That would be trouble."

Methodically, she nodded, "Okay."

Harry stood, which put him into Ginny's hands, because she was standing right over him. He gave her a tug. "I want to ask you one more thing in private."

In the library, Harry dropped his voice despite spell-protecting the room. "What did Aaron ask Tonks at the club?"

Ginny shook her head, gaze distant. "I don't know."

"You reacted like you heard," Harry pressed.

"Oh, now I know what you mean. Yeah, Aaron on the way over was on about something."

"What exactly?" Harry said, grabbing her shoulder hard, but instantly releasing it to just a light touch. He longed to force the words out of her.

"It's sorta silly, Harry. Aaron was probably joking with me."


She laughed uncomfortably and made an odd face. "Aaron said Tonks and Rodgers went around the Ministry running spells on everyone today. He accused them of looking for a Dark Mark on everyone."

Harry made a face that conveyed equal disbelief. "Strange. Did you hear anything else?"

"I'll ask Aaron, but he might just keep joking around." She peered up at Harry. "So, when shall I schedule this interview for? Or should I wait to see when the Minister of Magic is free?"

Harry, thinking that Belinda would need to accomplish half of his plan, and that she may have been caught up in the Dark Mark detection, said, "I'll send you an owl."

After Ginny departed, Harry went to Belinda's flat. Belinda was passed out on the couch with an empty bottle tipped over just below her limp hand. Harry filled a glass with water from the sink and set it down on the floor. He pulled a chair over beside the couch and took from his pocket the bottle of pink stuff he had brought along.

Patting Belinda's sagging face roused her enough to get the potion into her. Moments later she sat up, squinting into the light.

"Drink this." Harry held up the water. When it was gone, Harry asked, "What's the matter?"

Voice hoarse, she said, "They came around today."

When she stopped there, Harry said, "The Aurors?"

Belinda nodded. "They were running spells on everyone, but wouldn't say why. But they were looking for Dark Marks. I know it because it made it burn." Her distant gaze narrowed in on Harry. "How did they know?"

"I actually don't know," Harry said, hating saying that with all his heart. He rubbed his lips and chin in thought. "I don't know. Maybe it was simply a strange precaution."

"They've never done that before, even back when they should have been doing it weekly."

Harry pushed to his feet. "Figures." He refilled the glass and brought it back. "But you are here instead of the Dungeon." With that Harry snapped from wholly confident to fearing a trap. He ran a few spells on the room, and turned in a circle, ready for the worst.

Between gulps of water, Belinda said, "They did not check my ankle, needless to say."

Harry stepped over to her and grabbed the water away, sloshing it. "Look at me and repeat that," he insisted.

She blinked at him in surprise.

"Repeat it," Harry spat.

"Um, they didn't check my ankle. So they found nothing."

Harry saw in her memory that this was true. Or as true as she understood it. Harry paced. Everything suddenly felt incredibly tenuous. But moving his plans along would test Belinda's position at the same time. "Can you invite Minister Bones out for dinner?"

"With you?"

"No. With a young reporter and one of the stalwarts of witch home fashion, Madame Zacundo."

"Minister goes out for dinners like that all the time. She'd love it."

"Owl me to let me know what day will work." He stepped toward the center of the floor. "Oh, and no more drink."


Harry lifted a hand to point steadily between her eyes, then dropped his hand as soon as he realized he was doing that. "I'm deadly serious. I catch you again in that state you were just in, you will feel pain like you never imagined pain could be."

"Really?" she sounded tired and mocking.

Harry pulled his wand. "Want to try a Cruciatus Curse now?"

Belinda flinched and her eyes brightened with fearful awareness. "NO. I don't. Go away."

He aimed his wand. "Did you hear me? Not. Again."

She was apparently appalled enough by the command to shake off even this threat. "What am I supposed to do with myself?"

Harry dropped his wand hand in disgust. "That's not my problem. Read a book. Go for a broom flight. Join a Quidditch Team. I don't care what." He slipped away and left her.

- 888 -

When Tonks returned to the Auror's office from the club she immediately sank into her desk chair.

"You were gone a while," Rogan said. "Thought you may be onto something."

"I messaged in," Tonks wearily pointed out.

Rodgers swept into the room, causing the Autoquill in the holder by the logbook to stand at attention. "Anything?"

Tonks shook her head. "Harry was there. Mostly himself. He must have been drinking a while."

Rodgers fell still. "Drunk or potioned?"

"Definitely drunk. Definitely not knocked cold stone stiff and contorted by Discombobulate Cloud."

Rodgers said, "Well, the cell was empty when I got there. Maybe it was a false alarm. Or a rat."

"A rat would have been knocked dead by that much aerosol potion. I really loaded it up." She rubbed her hair around. "Speaking of knocked dead, I wish I had finished my beer."

"Why don't you do that? You can take a break now and then, you know," Rodgers scolded.

- 888 -

Harry sat in his room, writing out a letter to Ginny. Belinda had owled to say the Minister would happily go to dinner with Madame Zacundo on the following Tuesday. Harry felt the cords in his forearms tense at the delay. Waiting for events to play out along their own course felt insulting and the sense of insult tried to shift to a black anger, but he assuaged it by imagining the moment of revenge.

His owl off, Harry read again through the clippings on Margarite Zacundo. She kept a second house in Spain, where she lived year-round years ago. She returned to the UK wealthy, but none of the articles indicated how she came into the money.

Downstairs, Harry heard voices and the outside door shut. He heard Snape say, "He's upstairs in his room," and moments later Tonks appeared in the doorway.

"Wotcher, Harry," she said, voice tinged with tired sadness. "It's the end of the week and you hadn't checked in at the office so I came 'round to see if you were coming in." Her eyes searched his as she spoke.

"I'm still thinking about it," Harry said, voice hard. "I'll let you know what I decide."

"You're missed around the Ministry, Harry." When he did not respond to this she shifted her weight to her other foot and said, "Why don't you just come in just to say hello to everyone? You didn't come out for drinks with us last night and everyone wondered what you were up to."

Harry did not want to tell her that he felt it best to help guard the house now. "I had other things to do."

She scuffed her pointed toe against the floor and frowned. "Next week? Come in next week, then. Pick a day, so I can tell Rodgers."

"I said I'd let you know," Harry repeated.

Tonks scrubbed her cheek with her palm and said, "Is there anything you need from us, Harry? Arthur seems willing to do anything at all. You just have to ask."

Harry rubbed his hands together then clasped them, a gesture he had never before done. "I can't think of anything right now."

"All right, Harry." Tonks ducked her head and departed.

Tonks' visit left Harry even more restless. He longed to go somewhere, preferably another Plane where there were lots of local Death Eaters. If he went to visit the other Ginny, he could practice blocks and attacks for hours, which he itched to do. Harry tossed his book, Suspicious Person Interview Protocols, aside and sat back on his bed with his arms crossed. He wanted to do whatever he pleased, but his duty here was greater. By not even warning Snape of his insulting owl to The Boss, Harry really must stay home.

Harry put his Auror book aside and pulled out the strangest of the dark magic ones from under the bed. He positioned it before his crossed legs and opened it at random. The page border slithered with withered vines and curled leaves like shriveled old hands. For a second, the gibberish words formed a sentence. Death, being forever . . . was all Harry caught of it, but when he focused his eyes on the text, it returned to chaotic meaninglessness. Harry stared at the border again, tracing his eye around the woodcut, picking out the shrunken red fruit hanging at regular intervals. A centipede slipped along the vine, tiny hooked feet rippling rhythmically. The vine shuddered as it passed on its endless path around the border of the page.

Life, being a flicker, and death, being forever, must be the enemy against which all struggles of life are directed.

True, Harry's instincts said in an I-told-you-so sort of fashion. Harry closed the book and gave it a shove far back under his bed.

The door downstairs suffered another knock. Harry stood this time, bored enough to go see who it was. Hermione was just coming into the main hall, Vineet behind her, face neutral, eyes inscrutable.

"I needed a break from Hogwarts. Hope you don't mind a visit, Harry."

Harry shook his head. He expected her to settle in near the baby like everyone else did, but as she packed her hat away in her cloak pocket, she said, "We don't want to be in the way. Want to go up to your room?"

"You aren't intruding at all," Candide said.

With a dutiful air, Hermione took a seat, sitting upright on the edge of the couch. Snape crossed behind where they sat, and Harry saw Candide's eyes come up to follow him, blinking like something had been communicated.

Candide picked Arcadius up and said, "I'm not going to be up much longer, anyway."

Harry glanced behind at Snape, who came and took Arcadius for a walk around the room like he would if he were fussing rather than yawning and tipping his head into sleep.

"How is the baby?" Hermione asked.

"Good," Candide replied with a round smile. "Growing like a cauldron cake."

Everyone sat in silence. Harry looked around at everyone in turn before saying, "Maybe we should go up to my room."

Harry only had one chair, which Vineet took. Hermione sat on the edge of the bed, and Harry sat back against the headboard. The arrangement reminded Harry of another time, which made his hand fidget.

"How are you doing, Harry?" Hermione asked.

Harry brought his gaze over to her and stared at her.

"Did Tonks send you?" Harry asked.

Hermione's eyes registered confusion. "No. I just . . . wanted to talk." She seemed to think of an idea. "After Skeeter's wizard wireless show, you know." She stumbled over her words. "We're all on your side, you know. She's a bitter old hag," she added with little enthusiasm.

Harry smiled faintly. "She's going down."

"You're not going to do anything you'll later regret, are you?"

"Worried about Skeeter?" Harry challenged her. "This from someone who trapped her in an unbreakable glass jar."

"I probably shouldn't have done that, actually," Hermione said with a blush.

Harry nodded, feeling this confirmed something.

"What are you planning?" Hermione asked.

"I don't think it best to tell you," Harry replied.

Hermione frowned. She tossed her hair to one side and smoothed the bedspread with one hand. "So what else are you working on other than revenge against Skeeter? How do you keep from getting bored?"

"I'm gathering my minions together," Harry said, smiling, watching her reaction with great care. Hermione's face flickered with discomfort but she masked it well. Harry let her hang there before saying, "I've been reading a lot. You should be happy to hear that."

"Depends on what you're reading, Harry," she said, chummily uncomfortable.

Harry crawled to the edge of the bed and dragged the strange book back out. He opened it at random and with some effort and mussing of the bedcover, turned it toward her. "Can you read that?" he asked.

Hermione rubbed her eyes and backed her head up. "That hurts my eyes. The letters are jumping all over. What is that?"

"Try studying the page border and reading the text without looking at it," Harry suggested.

Vineet came over and stood leaning over Hermione, head tilted with interest.

Hermione made a face while she scanned the woodcut of a dune field. The dune tops blew gently off to reveal and rebury skulls and ruins beneath the sands. "What a strange book."

"What does it say?" Harry asked.

"Oh." Hermione glanced back at the text and flinched away. Shook her head, and studied the border again. "Wait. Ugh." She repeated the routine again. "Don't look at it, Hermione," she chanted at herself.

Hermione fell into stillness. Then in a sudden motion she flipped the book to the beginning, flipped through the first few pages, then the inside of each cover.

"What is it?" Vineet asked.

"What is this book?" Hermione demanded, all bundled up energy now. "Where did you get this, Harry?"

"I borrowed it from the Restricted Vault in London."

"Without checking it out, officially, I assume," Hermione said.

"Why bother?" Harry said. "It was dusty. No one has read it in a century according to the circulation register." He watched her face as she was tempted to turn back to one of the pages. "What did it say?"

Hermione sat with her hand gripping the chunk of pages, suspended mid-flip back to where it had been open. "It was like a prophecy."

"What did it say?" Harry asked, not demanding, more seductive.

"It said . . . it was hopeless. Everyone is too weak. Um . . ." She trailed off.

Vineet put a hand on her shoulder. "That does not resemble a prophecy."

"Um, no I guess it doesn't." She stood up. But then sat back down again, flustered.

There was more to the writing, Harry was certain. "Does seem quite personal what it says. Doesn't it?" Harry asked.

"Exactly," she said, relieved a little. "What does it say to you?"

Harry closed the book and set it back under the bed. "It speaks of the finality of death."

She laughed uncertainly. "And the author is probably now beyond the veil thinking, why the heck did I write that."

"I don't think the author wrote anything," Harry said, thoughts loosening. "I think Time itself wrote that book."

After a pause, Vineet said, "That is a very strange thing to say."

Hermione held up a hand as if to forestall Vineet saying more. Harry said, "I didn't mean that some wizard or witch wasn't involved. But, what you see in it, it isn't their fault."

"The magic has probably changed too," Hermione said, gesturing at where the book had been put out of sight.

After another silence, Hermione bent her knee and pulled her foot close by the ankle. "Do you need any help, Harry?"

"Why does everyone assume I need help?" Harry asked sharply.

Hermione sounded on far firmer ground now. "Because a lot has happened to you. You used to let us help with everything."

"I need help putting up some Apparition barriers around a Muggle restaurant." Harry raised his eyes to Vineet expectantly.

Vineet nodded, acquiescing in his manner.

"Any chance you'll tell us your plans? We can keep a secret, Harry."

"You don't need to know," Harry said, dismissing the topic with that.

As they departed, Hermione stepped closer to Harry and said, "I've been your friend a long time, Harry."

"And?" Harry prompted. She would not make a good servant. His instinct rebelled in her presence, in fact, rattled him to send her off.

Hermione waited, taking in his eyes, before frowning despite obviously trying not to. "Just remember that, okay?"

"I'm very aware of who my friends are right now, Hermione," Harry said. To Vineet, he said, "I'll owl you with the time and place."

Next Chapter: 53

Dumbledore spoke more quietly. "Has it occurred to you that Harry may prefer to be spared this change?"

"Yes, of course it has." She blinked back the heat in her eyes. "We're not giving up on him that easily. He didn't give up on the rest of us all those years, despite everything he needed to do."

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