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Chapter 77 — Twentieth

"And this, over here, is the prisoner check-in area."

The little wizard walked briskly, metal heels clicking, leading the shuffling group into a narrow corridor with a stone cabinet along one side and barred slots in the wall.

"All charmed and cursed materials are removed from the prisoners and then they are guided through to the central holding area leading to the cell blocks. Eventually, there will be three cell blocks but only one is completed enough for our tour today."

Minister Bones stopped and scrutinized the check-in corridor, squinting at the arched ceiling, peering in one of the barred slots. Harry and his fellows remained at the back of the crowd so they could stay out in the metallic sunshine glaring through the open roof. Creosote coated roof beams met in peaks out in space, appearing burned again already. Stacks of bundled slate tiles lined the walls.

"Remind me not to make a reservation here," Aaron said. "I bet the staff are only attentive when you most wish them not to be."

Beside him, Ginny grinned while scratching fiercely in a notebook. At the tail of their group, Askunk hung back. Harry couldn't tell if she was disturbed or enthralled by the tour. Her suspicious gaze fixed on something. Harry turned. The French prison warden stood to the side of the main group, looking their way.

Harry took a deep breath and let his arms slide uncrossed as he slipped through his fellows in the warden's direction.

"Meester Pottar," the warden said, making several Ministry staff turn to listen in. The warden stepped over to where the room opened up and tarred beams lay stacked on the floor.

"I have followed the news of you, so I am aware that you are not so much of a conversationalist, but I was 'oping to see you." He sounded casual, deceptively so, something Harry had not noticed before.

"How are you?" Harry said.

"Ah, you do speak. Zee news is always so late getting to my little prison. You are recovering, zen." It wasn't a question. "I am well, to answer your question. And you?"

"Good."

"You are remaining out of trouble?"

Harry resisted rubbing his forearm. "Mostly."

The crowd shuffled through the check-in area, including Harry's friends, who slowed and sent glances back before going around the corner.

"You are only on zee side of good, now. Or so I 'ave read."

Harry chewed on his lips rather than reply to this. He wished his face wasn't trying to flush as he remembered his struggles with darkness while under this man's charge.

The warden looked Harry over. "I zink you have lost some of your facets, Meester Pottar."

Harry returned to the present with a jolt. He was being dismissed. The warden was looking along the empty passageway to where the group had gone. "I am . . . more," Harry insisted, knowing this to be true by the way his heart swelled up in defiance.

The warden didn't look at Harry as he said, "Ah. I am pleased to 'ear zat." He became wistful. "I 'ave not had any new interesting wizard in monzs." He turned back to Harry. "I 'ad 'oped zee reports about you were misleaded. But alas." The sunlight had brought a sparkle to his eyes that made Harry believe now that he was teasing.

"I am me now," Harry said, glad to assert that in the face of the memories this man brought back.

"Yes. Yes." The warden gestured that they should follow in the direction of the others and started walking.

As they reached the end of the line of visitors filing along a dark, spiraled corridor down into the solid rock, Harry leaned closer to say, "Azkaban not done. I bring interesting wizard. To you."

By the light of his wand, Harry saw the warden's curling mustaches twitch as he smiled. "I will be waiting," he said.

- 888 -

Harry entered the main hall at home and looked through his pile of books while his mind rang with spell sequences. Rodgers had them run drills non-stop for thirty minutes at a go to make up for the lost morning on the tour. At least, that was his stated excuse. Harry suspected he was trying to rattle Askunk, who so far had stood up to their trainer's normal abuse.

The house was quiet. Harry peered into the drawing room and found it empty.

"Master is bringing Mistress from her sister's house, Master," Winky said from behind Harry.

Harry turned and the elf gave a little bow.

"Thanks, Winky." He wanted to say more, about how sorry he still was, but before he could formulate anything, she disappeared in a sparkle. Shaking his head, he settled in with his studies.

A baby shriek of delight signaled the arrival of the rest of the household. Arcadius was plonked down in Harry's lap where he began tearing at the pages of his book. Harry repaired the book with a wave and intervened with the stuffed aardvark Snape handed him.

"When you take a respite from that, perhaps a game of chess."

Candide came in with the evening paper. "How was the tour of New Azkaban?" She held up the cover of the evening edition which had Harry standing beside the Minister of Magic and other dignitaries before the great carved gate which been the only thing to survive the explosion which had leveled the place.

Snape turned at this and came back around his desk to the doorway of the drawing room.

"Interesting," Harry replied.

"Looks like quite a group. The French prison warden was there too," she said, wandering the room as she read to herself.

This drew Snape back to the doorway again.

"Yes," Harry said, meeting Snape's gaze. "I made him sad. Too boring."

"What a disappointment for him." Snape retreated to his desk and stayed there.

Candide took the seat opposite with the paper held high, saying, "Look at that wall of cages. Awful. It's terrible that you were stuck in a place like that, Harry."

Arcadius gave a cry. His toy had fallen to the floor. Harry returned it to him and he stuffed it in his mouth and curled himself around it, feet and all, and gave a happy gurgle. Holding him was making Harry tired, which it often seemed to. Harry scooted down to rest his head back.

"Want me to take him?"

Harry shook his head, hoping Arcadius would settle down and sleep a bit, maybe do a bit of cocooning again, something he had yet to repeat. Harry closed his eyes and felt Arcadius' hands bumping him as he played.

Harry's head jerked awake when someone tapped him on the shoulder. Arcadius was asleep beside him, propped on pillows that someone must have put there. Snape said, "As much as I wish to see you healing, you need to do your readings. You must not fall further behind." He slid Great Ghoul Expulsion Techniques out from under Harry's left hand and sat beside him to read aloud.

Long before the three chapters were up, Arcadius was taken away for a feeding and then put in his hanging basket. Harry felt cold and hollow without him. He rubbed his arms and resisted walking over to look at him. Maybe he needed to hold him less often.

"Chess?" Harry said, needing more of a distraction.

Snape stopped in the middle of a sentence and stared at him. "Are you all right?"

Harry opened his mouth to lie—the "yes" was right there, which was nice, in a way. Candide was in the dining room working at the large table and that made it easier to say, "Don't know."

Snape closed the book and placed it beside him. He looked at Harry expectantly, gaze sharp.

"Holding Archie . . . feel strange now."

"How exactly?"

"Empty. Again. Like before." He meant the way he had felt right after tearing himself free from Voldemort.

Snape hooked his elbow up on the couch back and propped his chin on his fingers. "He does that to me also," he admitted with depreciating reluctance. "I had not honestly considered that it might be his magic at work."

Harry smiled. "I think it is." He looked at his hands, feeling like he did if he missed his morning coffee. "It's okay."

"Anything else I should know? I notice you have resumed holding back on me." He quickly added, "Which is fine as long as you are circumspect; you are, after all, exactly a week from turning twenty." He seemed to want to add more, but said instead, "Did you send out invitations, by the way? I'm curious how many to expect."

"I need to send."

Snape handed Harry's book back to him. "I did want to ask about the girl, if only to help establish some expectations about your future actions. Are you serious about her?"



Harry shrugged. "She's . . . interesting." That wasn't the word Harry wanted, but it was the only one he had.

"Invite her to your birthday party in that case."

Harry had not considered that, and he should have. "I will."

"I'll remind you of your promise that you would insure my presence at any werewolf curing attempts." He grew hard. "If you go back on that . . . I shall ground you for a year."

Harry stared at him. "Like to see you try," he heard himself say, feeling that defiance he felt at the warden rise up without resistance this time. It wiped the emptiness away and left him inflated.

Snape's brows rose, but his lips twitched. "Noted," he said, sounding subdued but also amused. "You did promise."

"I did."


"You are improving."

"Because I talk?"

"Language is a window on the mind. So, yes, it is likely the reason I believe that." Snape intertwined his fingers before him. "Speaking of windows on the mind, I sense you are hiding something right now, but I am going to assume it is not important because I have given you no reason not to trust me."

Harry's arm chose that moment to twinge and Snape's eyes flickered that way, indicating he was cheating a bit. Harry rubbed the spot.

"You had that one healed, did you not?"

Harry nodded. "Bit by werewolf."

Snape's gaze blanked out for a second, then he sat up straight, gaze intense. Harry pulled up his sleeve and showed him the remains of his wrong-handed healing spell.

"Okay. Cured my arm. Just scar."

Snape's hand grabbed Harry's left arm and shook it once. "The girl," he said as if concluding something. He frowned, still appearing rattled.

"Sorry," Harry said. "Not thinking enough. More chess."

The look Harry received next was tinged with regret and Harry, without Legilimency, knew Snape was thinking Harry was not going to make it through his apprenticeship.

Setting each word down with precision, Harry said, "I'm going to be an Auror."

Snape held the book up. "It is true that the Healer Apprenticeship would require approximately five times the reading the Auror one does."

Harry made a horrified face, wanting to make amusement out of the comment, even though it stung.

Snape placed his hand back on Harry's arm. He didn't grab, just pressed Harry's arm down. "You have a long path ahead of you, Harry. Longer than you are capable of conceiving of in your current state."

Harry ducked his head to hide his frown. The sense of sympathy conveyed by Snape's hand depressed him.

Harry said, "You don't believe . . . Auror."

"You have a long path." His sober tone lightened as he added, "But if I have learned one thing, it is not to underestimate you." He patted the book. "Would you like chess or your readings?"

"Chess."

- 888 -

Harry handed out invitations to his fellows at training on Thursday, the soonest he could given how slow he was at writing legibly. He had dropped the invite for Indigo off with the twins on the way to the Ministry. The party was to be on Saturday, rather than Monday, his birthday. Askunk stared in mystification at the envelope Harry handed her before pocketing it with a mumbled thanks.

"Nothing for me?" Rodgers asked as Harry sat down.

"You want to come?"

Rodgers held his gaze. "Not really."

"He just wants to be invited," Kerry Ann said. "Perfectly reasonable, I think."

Rodgers was relatively easy on them, working on fine tuning counters against weak attacking spells. He seemed distracted to Harry, his thoughts too distant to invent much difficulty for them.

"I notice you cast the department in a good light in today's Prophet," he said while helping Harry with his wand grip on a Trap Titan.

"I what?"

"The interview." Rodgers voice fell into the usual derisive.

"Harry never reads his own press," Aaron said from across the room. "Ginny's contemplating an entire series about Harry's wild wedding in St. Tropez and his subsequent divorce a week later, just to see if he notices."

Rodgers was smiling as he walked around Harry to get out of the way of the next round of spells. "I like your friends," he said with a snort.

When he got home, Harry picked up and tried reading the article. It seemed dry and factual based on the scattered phrases he could glean from the first column of it.

"Nice article," Candide said as she walked through the dining room with Franklin on her arm. She gave him a letter and let him out the window.

"Hm," Harry said, folding the paper over to see how long the second part was. He flinched back from a whole column stretching the height of the paper. When Candide held her hand out for it, he willingly gave it over.

She began reading the second part, "Department head, Arthur Weasley, insists that despite his notoriety Harry is still a provisional Apprentice, subject to extra scrutiny at his yearly reviews. Despite this lack of expressed confidence by the department head, Mr. Potter has returned to being a favorite novice companion of the Aurors during his weekly required fieldwork. One Auror told this reporter off the record that getting an assignment with Harry is something that is fought over. Did you know that?"

Harry shook his head.

"'We're a team,' stated fellow apprentice Kerry Ann Kalendula, 'We all have strengths and weaknesses. Unlike most people in the world, Harry knows he has weak points and is working hard to improve them. He's relentless with himself and kind to everyone else. And I'd seriously consider leaving the program if he weren't in it. And I'm not the only one.' Did you know that?"

Harry tilted his head side to side. He half knew that.

"When asked to comment, Minister of Magic Amelia Bones insisted she could not inject herself into what was purely a departmental issue, but then stated, 'If there ceases to be a place for Harry in this Ministry we have lost something significant and I will do my best to see that it doesn't happen in the first place.'" Candide lowered the paper. "It goes on. Shall I read more?"

Harry shook his head. Candide folded the paper up and set it on the table, saying, "I was surprised that she attributed your resistance to magical healing to your being Muggle-raised."

Harry shrugged. "Too hard to say to her."

"And it's no one's concern anyway." She patted him on the shoulder. "You are getting much better. I'll confess I have been second guessing you, thought maybe you should have gone back for the treatment."

Harry looked over his shoulder at her, disappointed by this. She gave him a sad smile.

"I was wrong. I admit it." She held up her hands. "I never said anything when it might have influenced you."

"I wouldn't let her," Snape said from the doorway. He tossed his chin in the direction of the discarded newspaper. "You should read the last paragraph."

Harry opened the paper again, brow furrowing at the narrow lines of print where the line breaks left the sentences chopped and difficult to assemble in his head.

Candide leaned over his shoulder and read, "Harry's sometime Mentor, Per Hossa, a Finnish Shaman, stated in correspondence through a translator that finding the darkness inside oneself or the light inside oneself was simply a matter of journeying through life, but that wizards fail to appreciate how much brighter and darker these two halves burn inside the magical heart. The whole world would be a quieter place if they could understand this."

"He answered an owl?" Harry said.

"Could be a first," Snape said.

"I should visit," Harry said, letting his eyes roam over the paragraph again without the strain of trying to understand it.

"You probably have time before dinner," Snape said.

"Probably have time . . ." Candide repeated, grinning. "Oh, you weren't joking."

"Readings," Harry said with a sigh. "Visit later."

"You have a letter," Candide said, picking up a clean white envelope. "Want me to read it?"

"Let Harry at least try," Snape criticized her.

"Handwriting is much harder for him." She handed over the letter. "Or haven't you noticed that? That and the way the columns are printed in the newspaper."

Harry looked up from pulling out the letter. "Don't fight. Over me."

Snape's robes swished as he stepped closer to put his fingertips down on the table. "We aren't fighting over you."

Harry looked up from the crisply printed snake seething around the letterhead.

Snape went on. "We are, I'm quite certain, fighting over Arcadius. More specifically over disciplining him some, just a little, to help rein in his magic."

Candide crossed her arms and looked at a spot on the hearth stone. Harry waited for further explanation.

Snape said, "Candide believes we should continue to provide Arcadius with things to light on fire whenever the mood strikes, and to make the flue backdraft if he is displeased."

In a tone that sounded tired of repeating the same thing, Candide said, "He's only a baby."

"He is quite aware of how he influences our actions. That is early enough to start."

She walked out, turning sideways to sweep past him.

In a low voice, Snape said, "I am not suggesting anything extreme. And it will be easier to start now."

He sounded like he needed to unburden himself, so Harry held the letter aside and waited.

"If we are not of one mind on this we will undermine each other and it will be disastrous." He rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I am curious what you think."

Harry folded the letter up and crumpled it a bit as he secured his arms against his sides to think. His first instinct was to agree with Snape, in theory, if he really only intended small encouragements. Harry's own memories of a happy childhood cut short by magic-crushing discipline made it impossible to voice that. "Can't say."

Snape gazed at him as if noticing him for the first time since coming into the room. He sounded friendlier all of a sudden. "No, I don't suppose you could say." He patted Harry on the arm and left him alone.

Harry flattened the letter out on the table top. It was from the hospital in Liverpool, but Harry could not read any of it, except to determine that the signature started with an "H". He carried it to the main hall where Snape and Candide were standing at ninety degree angles to one another, she holding Arcadius, neither of them talking.

Harry handed Snape the letter. Snape held it close to his nose, pushed it out to arms length, then scowled at it for over a minute.

"It is from Healer Hedgepeth. I can decipher only that he wishes to be present at the next Werewolf curing and he requests that you send him a reply indicating where and when that will be."

Harry settled in with a book, using the letter as a marker. "Can I have?" he said a few minutes later, indicating Arcadius.

With greater care than normal, Candide settled Arcadius into his arms. The baby played subdued. Harry suspected he sensed the tension in the room. Snape brought his work from the drawing room and sat beside Candide, who was chewing a finger and watching the baby squish a red ball in his hands while chanting, "Ba. Ba. Ba."

When McGonagall arrived in the entryway accompanied by a burst of flapping phoenix, Harry suspected Snape of attempting to distract the household from the feud by inviting her over. Certainly everyone eagerly put down their things to greet her.

"I hope I'm not too early for dinner? Richard is away and I found myself attracted to the idea of company." She tweaked Arcadius' ear. "And how are you, wee one?" Arcadius' eyes were bugging out of his head as he stared at the bird on her shoulder. "You like my friend?" She stroked the bird on the back, which made Fawkes crawl up onto her hat and give a squawk from that safer spot.

McGonagall removed her hat and the bird flapped over to perch on one of the lit lamps, its claws squeaking against the glass guard. It tilted its head at Arcadius when Candide carried him closer. Harry glanced at Snape to see what he was thinking. He was thinking, hard, and watching keenly, but Harry couldn't tell whether he was worried or just curious.

"Ba," Arcadius said, reverently. He held a hand out toward the bird and repeated it. Fawkes gave a flap and tilted his head all around, studying the baby.

Harry stepped closer to Snape to ask, "Will burn up early hurt him?"

Voice low, Snape replied, "I am assuming the bird's magic is the stronger."

Candide bounced Arcadius on her arm. "You like the birdie?"

"Ba."

"Bird," Candide said. "Bird. Fawkes."

"You never did tell me his secret, Harry," McGonagall said, accepting the tall drink Winky held up to her.

The bird gave a feather-scattering squawk. "Safe secret," Harry said to the bird, and held his fingers out as a perch. The bird stepped to his hand, adjusting his hot rough feet before sitting still.

"What is this?" Snape asked.

Harry carried the bird over to him. Fawkes fluttered and nipped at Harry's fingers. "You don't like Sev'rus?" he asked the bird, smiling. "Wonder why?"

Snape lowered his brow at Harry. "You are keeping a secret for a bird?"

"Not any bird."

Fawkes squawked and bit the soft part of Harry's palm hard enough to break the skin.

"No more scars," Harry complained. "Unless you fix."

Snape said, "I do wish to be there when you tell Shankwell you were attacked by a Phoenix."

Harry laughed and carried the bird back to Arcadius so he could watch the baby gape at him.

McGonagall said, "Well, I continue to be grateful to you for blackmailing him into providing me with transportation and some quiet company."

After dinner, when the conversation veered to and stuck on Hogwarts, Harry left to meet his friends at a pub. Hermione was sitting on the booth side of the table beside Vineet. Amboise rose from a stool to greet Harry with a handshake, then went off to get him a beer.

"Isn't he the best?" Kerry Ann said.

Harry sat across from Hermione in a chair crowded around the table on the diagonal.

"It was your party invite that made us all get together, you know," Hermione said, face rosy above her nearly empty beer glass. "Got together today just so we can get together again on Saturday." She seemed proud of this pronouncement.

Aaron arrived an hour later and pulled a stool over beside Harry, sitting high up. "You're dateless as well, I see. Much obliged for that."

"Yes, Harry, why don't you have a date?" Hermione asked.

Vineet turned to consider her with an interested expression. "You have been drinking my beer as well."

"I ran out before you did." She spun her foam strewn glass. As if it explained everything, she said, "I've been remembering."

Vineet picked her hand up off the table and took it between his own. "Alcohol does not make you happier, I think."

Harry must have moved unconsciously in Hermione's direction, because Aaron slid off his stool beside her and said, "You want to sit here?"

Harry slid past the offered seat and crammed in beside Hermione on the bench. She rested her head sideways on his shoulder and remained that way. Conversation continued, with Aaron grilling Amboise on French wizard fashion and Vineet discussing field work with Kerry Ann.

Hermione finally lifted her head and patted Harry on the arm. "You're going to be twenty," she said, too brightly. "I'm glad."

"You didn't think he was going to make it?" Aaron asked. He made a thoughtful face. "Neither did I, frankly."

"Less alcohol next time," Vineet said, to Harry, while patting Hermione's arm.

Ginny's late arrival meant they stayed out until two and Harry used the Floo to arrive home as quietly as possible.

The house sat in stillness. One candle burned in the chandelier. Harry paused at the bottom of the stairs to feel his way around the quiet fabric of the air. He could hear himself breathing, hear himself swallow. The stone walls felt watchful, and Harry wondered if he could sense the spells upon them, or it if was just his tired imagination.

In his room, Harry shed his clothes and fell into bed, dragged low by many hours of sipping beer. As he drifted off, he wondered what the house felt like to Arcadius, if he could sense not only curses, but also the protective spells and comfort charms layered on over the years. He hoped Arcadius didn't find all spells as irksome as Harry found curses.

- 888 -

Snape raised his head as the glass dome of the monitor began waving with light. He could barely see it beneath the cloth children's book, the spare nappy, and the tin of skin cream piled over it. He had been having a dream where Harry was reaching for him as a werewolf, not a nightmare, but more disturbing as a result. Harry rarely had nightmares now. Snape could put the monitor away for good, or until Arcadius was sleeping alone. Arcadius' dreams would undoubtedly be unpredictably complicated.

It was well past 2:30 when Snape gave in and slipped from the bed and collected up his dressing gown. At the closed door, he paused, tying the gown with undue care and tucking one flap well under the other. He should simply assume Harry slept well. The monitor certainly indicated as much. He peered back at the bed where a long lump under the covers revealed Candide's presence. Arcadius' basket loomed just beside the headboard on her side.

If he did not stop checking on Harry at this stage, he was never going to. He tapped the wall with his wand to watch the blue sparkles trail over the walls, indicating everything was safe.

Snape huffed, which sounded louder than expected. Harry did not need checking on.

The bed did not look so inviting when there were things to be verified. Snape tapped the door with a Silencing Charm and turned the handle.

Harry's bedroom door was ajar, so Snape put his wand away as he entered. Harry slept as he often did now, with his limbs akimbo, one arm bent in front of his face, the other draped behind him, as if he had been frozen while running. This was a new thing, this posture.

Harry's wand lay on the bedside table, the handle nearly off the edge. Harry was, somewhat understandably, reluctant to go shopping for a new one. Snape certainly didn't want him inheriting a new fate along with a new wand, but an Auror should be outfitted properly. Maybe he should push this point again.

He placed Harry's wand fully onto the side table, where it rolled an inch and bumped into the cold lamp. It was a wand destined for someone else, someone who no longer existed. And it had a history that struck Snape as irredeemably tainted. But Harry had a penchant for holding onto things, and people, that had come through bad times with him.

Wide awake now, Snape walked to the window after checking that Harry's pet slept as soundly as her master. He looked out into the garden and beyond the wall into the neighbor's garden. The moonlight drew hulking shadows out of the potted plants and the table and chairs, reminding Snape of the battles fought out there.

Snape spun back to the room, which seemed dark now in comparison. He wasn't checking on Harry anymore, he was checking on himself.

At the door, he looked back. Harry lay as he had been, still as a carving.

- 888 -

Harry's friends packed the main hall, dining room and library, raising the bright chatter to a dull roar. Harry stood in the doorway to the dining room, looking for a path through.

"We could expand in here a little bit," George offered.

"That we could," Fred agreed.

They were wearing glittering letters, "F" and "G", on identical red blazers.

"Gift from Indigo," Fred said, patting his letter. "Hey, open your present, maybe she gave you an 'H'. Then with her 'I' we'd be well on our way to having the alphabet covered."

Fred leaned in and said, "She's getting a lot of pressure to return home. Just so you know. But we forced her to come to your party."

"Yeah, that was some forcing," George said with an eye roll.

Snape approached easily as the crowd parted naturally. He held a pewter cup of punch. "Quite a crowd." He lifted his chin as he surveyed the room. "Must be nice to have so many friends."

Harry grasped Snape's free arm and demanded something with his gaze. It was too loud to speak without shouting, anyway.

"Oh, do not take me seriously," Snape said, but Harry didn't release him. "Really." He tossed his head.

Harry waited half a minute to see if he changed his mind before letting him go.

Snape smiled faintly and shook his head. "I cannot gripe if you take me too seriously. Go on and join your friends. You've needed nearly every one of them at one time or another."

Harry had to turn sideways to get through to the snack table on the far wall where Suze and Ron were nibbling on and reviewing each of the bite-sized nibbles Winky had prepared.

"I swear this one tastes different than the last tray, even though it looks exactly the same," Ron said, licking his fingers. "Oh, hey, Harry."

"Happy Birthday, Harry," Suze said. "Thanks for the invite."

Harry smiled at her and held his cup out for the punch bowl ladle to fill it. Other cups were already held out, waiting, but the ladle gave him first dibs. He looked around the heads filling the hall. His fellow Apprentices were most likely here, but he had yet to find them. Ron and Suze went back to the snacks.

Someone shouted and someone laughed. Someone waved one of the small upper windows open because the house had grown warm. At that moment, no one was paying attention to Harry; they were just having a good time. He smiled as he sipped his drink, feeling satiated.

Someone touched Harry on the arm. It was Elizabeth, who gave him a loose, one-armed hug.

"How are you? Having a good birthday?" she asked right in his ear, over the noise.

Harry nodded and offered her a glass of punch. She was wearing a staid blouse and trousers, and held the punch glass safely aside, then pulled it close and said, "I forget I don't need to worry about spilling anymore." She smiled attractively at this.

Harry was pleased she had come and was trying to compose something to say when Fred came marching up with Indigo on his arm. "Here you are, safely delivered. Harry, here's your guest of the hour." Then he slipped away with a mischievous grin.

Harry did introductions by leaning close to each of their ears. Indigo and Elizabeth assessed each other while wearing polite smiles.

"Enjoying your stay?" Elizabeth asked Indigo.

"As much as possible. It's old here."

"It's really old at Oxford where I am. Staying in the UK long?"

"I don't know yet. I'm here for a few more weeks, at least."

"Oh."

Harry considered pointing out that Indigo had a fiancée back in Australia. Elizabeth smiled around a frown as she glanced over Indigo's stylishly embroidered jeans with a white frill at the ankles and a knee length frilled cardigan to match. Harry held back, but felt very strange doing so, as if people could be chess pieces.

"What are you studying?" Elizabeth asked.

"I'm not in University yet. I have another year and then my OE."

"Oh."

Ron grabbed Harry's wrist and held his cup where the ladle would refill it. "You were low."

Harry didn't remember drinking so much of it. He felt eyes on him and glanced down at Suze, who slipped up beside him.

"Get everything you wanted?" Suze asked.

"Don't know yet," Harry said, gesturing at the untouched pile on the changing table in the corner. Someone had put a lace tablecloth over it, so it actually looked like furniture.

Elizabeth and Indigo appeared to be discussing Indigo's rings. Harry didn't know if one of them was an engagement ring or not.

"Do you do more blocking or attacking in your apprenticeship?" Suze asked.

Harry realized that she had waited for his attention to return to ask that. "Blocking," he said, turning her way.

"Really?"

Aaron came up on Harry's other side. "Surprisingly, Aurors aren't trained to simply strike first and ask questions under the influence of Veritaserum later." He shook Harry's hand. "Felicitations on your birthday, old man."

"So they do let Slytherins be Aurors," Suze said, peering up at him with a suppressed grin.

Aaron bowed. "We also have one Slyvia Askunk in the program. But . . ." He held up a finger. "That does not mean they will let us be Aurors—they may just mean to torture us with a hundred pages of readings a day for three years then send us on our merry way. It has yet to be seen."

Ginny came up behind Aaron and he whispered something in her ear. Harry thought he heard, "Look at all the competition."

Indigo's gaze came up. Even without Legilimency he could see the strain in them which she hid again when she turned back to Elizabeth. Harry touched Suze on the arm to apologize for walking away, and went over there.

"How your brother?" Harry asked, then frowned at himself. His speech was worse around her and it was frustrating him.

"He thinks I'm out with the twins for a lark tonight." She glanced around the crowded room. "Which is true. They are here. Somewhere"

Her strained gaze returned and Harry was about to suggest stepping aside when the Patil twins emerged from the crowd and each grabbed an arm. By the time they caught up, thankfully with them doing the talking, he didn't see Indigo.

When he found her it was nearly an hour later and she was in the library with the twins, all three of them searching for something in the books, which they closed or put away immediately upon seeing Harry.

"Good books gone," Harry said.

George was sitting on the very end of the leather divan, which was otherwise full. People were sitting on the floor under the window, gesturing while chatting. There wasn't a private spot in the house.

"Can we talk sometime?" Indigo gestured at Fred. "The twins said you told them this . . . month. I haven't much time. Not to be pushy."

Harry had not spoken to Lupin yet. He and his cousin were coming to dinner for Harry's actual birthday. "I'll know you. Let you know. Where." Harry shut his mouth, feeling heat in his face. He turned to Fred, who was leaning in to listen.

"We'll see to everything," Fred whispered, hitting Harry on the back.

- 888 -

The party quieted and thinned out. Snape reclaimed the drawing room and sat behind the desk with the neglected post from that morning.

Suze wandered by the snack table, looking over the leavings as cover for glancing in at her Head of House. Harry's closest friends, and at least four attentive women were still clustered on and around the couches. Someone named Tara had shown up just a half hour before, to Harry's delight and several others' consternation. He was again haltingly explaining why his speech was so poor.

Suze knocked weakly on the doorframe after intending to knock normally. She swallowed hard as Professor Snape looked up, expression as impenetrable as ever. If the Slytherin dungeon was Professor Snape's territory, this house really was.

"Ms. Zepher."

That was the best one got, an acknowledgement. Only winning the house cup could achieve better. Suze stepped inside, out of view of the couches. "Can I speak with you, Professor?"

"If you wish."

She put her hands behind her back and stood before the desk. With him sitting, she could actually look at him higher than eye to eye. "I'm nearly seventeen, Professor. My birthday is in September. I don't know if you knew that."

"That detail has passed my desk before, yes."

Suze looked around the room, thinking of how to put things. "I only mention it because you've always been, I guess, protective is the word." She waited for some sign, but his expression didn't change. "And I was worried you might still be, even in sixth year."

His chair squeaked as he leaned back and steepled his fingers. He had aged since she'd started at Hogwarts, and it did not make him look more friendly. "It depends upon the student."

"Oh." She had imagined talking to him would be easier than talking to her parents. In general, he understood things better, but that wasn't helping right now. Maybe he didn't want it to help.

"You'll have to be more specific," Snape said.

"Oh, yes. Well, I was going to ask Harry out on a date and so that was why I was asking."

There was a delay in his saying, "You wish to join the fray out there?" She may actually have caught him by surprise.

"I'm not joining the fray, sir. I'm just asking Harry out."

"Well, with that attitude, you are free to do as you wish."

Buoyed by his permission and his relaxing expression, she said, "It's like catching a Snitch, Professor."

"Harry is a Snitch?"

"Exactly like one. And I'm very good at catching those. And if I don't catch the Snitch in one match, there is always another one."

"Surprisingly optimistic for a Slytherin."

She rocked back onto her heels after realizing she'd been up on her toes for a while. "I've been around my parents too long already this summer."

He actually huffed lightly as if amused. "Not everything Slytherins believe is correct."

She forgot what she was going to say next while taking in this sacrilege. When his face lost all expression again, she realized she should depart the room. "Thank you, Professor." She backed up toward the door. "It's been a nice party." She decided she should just leave it at that.

At the door, his stern voice caught her short. "Ms. Zepher."

She turned, but he did not speak. After a moment of silence, Suze realized she should approach a few steps so he would not have to speak loudly enough for those in the main hall to hear.

His gaze narrowed and his voice fell to barely audible as he said, "Don't hurt Harry."

Suze pointed at her own chest. "Me?" She gathered her cool. "No, of course not. Professor," she said, wondering if she had been reading his expression wrong all along.

This time she did give a little bow of her head before departing. A curtsy would be right out.

In the main hall, she sidled up to Aaron and Sylvia Askunk, who were leaning against the snack table, observing everyone else. Tonks and a female Auror trainee with a head full of flowing brown hair were sharing the couch with Harry and they were surrounded by chairs of people leaning in. Ginny was gripping her trouser cuff while the Australian girl flipped her frilly jean cuffs between her fingers. At quiet moments, the foreign girl seemed rather sad. But right now she seemed normal and the two of them were leaning close to talk. Tonks sat on the end near them, listening in, her hair changing first to Ginny's red then to the Australian girl's half-messy blonde highlights. Ginny noticed this and shoved her on the shoulder.

"I can't be center of attention here," Aaron said, as if responding to a comment someone had made.

"Why would you want to be?" Suze asked.

He pulled his head back in surprise, then laughed. "Bounding back in?" He nodded in the direction of the remaining guests.

"Why does everyone think this is a competition?" Suze asked.

He considered this for many seconds, then made a face. "Maybe you have something there."

Ginny looked up at Aaron and moved from the armrest beside Harry.

Suze said, "No one notices me. Watch."

"I will," Aaron said, smile audible.

Suze went over and sat on the armrest. Harry wasn't doing any talking, just listening to everyone else speak. It had been that way all evening. The others continued chatting, comparing shops on Diagon Alley to those in Hogsmeade. As expected, none of the tall, colorfully haired women studied Suze the way they surreptitiously did each other. Harry looked up with his green tinted diamond eyes and smiled. His eyes were almost as pale as hers and it was like looking into a mirror.

He didn't look easy to hurt. He looked untouchable.

"We have to go," Hermione said from the other couch. She was squeezing the Indian man's hand as she stood up.

She came over to Harry and leaned down to hug him before he could stand up. "Happy twentieth, Harry. I'm so glad you made it." Harry patted her back as she held on with undue fierceness.

When she stood straight, she swept her eye with the back of her hand. "Ready?" she said to her date, and they were gone.

Harry lifted his head suddenly in an attitude of listening. He raised his wand over his head and gave a flick. A moment later, his pet came sailing out of his room and made a dive like a predatory bird down to him. She madly rubbed her head over his chest.

Suze said, "She's a different color. Blue."

Harry held up his squirming pet, who licked his fingers as if encouraging him to release her. "Needs blood," he said, simply. "Want to give?" He held the tiny beast higher. Suze could see the tiny whiskers bear back as she hissed. Her teeth were nearly as long as her claws.

"Sure."

With a grin, Harry pulled his pet back to his chest and petted her.

"Want to go out next week?" Suze asked, picking a moment when the conversation buzzed louder.

Harry looked up as though seeing her for the first time. "Sure."



Author's Note: Yes, I had to fix Suze's upcoming school year.


Next: Chapter 78

"We have a special case brought to our attention this full moon," Lupin said.


Harry felt Snape's eyes come over to him. He knew exactly what Harry was thinking.


Lupin went on, "We have a young girl of seven."


Harry's heart sank. He was going to have to put Indigo off after promising her. Unless he could convince Snape to let him try two in one moon. Snape was already staring at him when he looked his way, always a step ahead. Snape tipped his head to the side doubtfully.


Lupin added, "A Muggle."

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