"What would you like to do?" Harry asked brightly when Tonks came out of her bedroom. He was relishing his freedom this evening and wanted Tonks to join in.
"You seem very chipper," she complained. When Harry shrugged, she added, "I expected you to still be angry about getting stuck in prison."
Harry had lost track of that anger while working to recover his guardian from a much worse place. The touch of absolute power he had experienced through Voldemorts' army of followers there had dwarfed what he had felt in prison, rendering that experience smaller yet.
Just for something to say, Harry half-jokingly said, "They've learned not to take me for granted since I quit."
She came around to where he sat and placed her hands on his shoulders. "The recriminations keep flying about that."
The tips of her fingers hurt him where they pressed against unyielding muscle. He tried to relax into her ministrations. but failed and shook loose by standing up.
"Come on, let's go out. I don't care where." Indeed, in this world, everywhere was safe, the whole place a playground.
Glumly, she insisted, "Somewhere Skeeter won't be."
Harry put an arm around her narrow waist, gathering her thick winter robes under his hand. Whatever scent she had put on was overwhelming so close. "Nah, let's go find her."
"Are you mad?"
Harry grinned. "One last setup . . . come on."
She shook her head. "You're really certain about her getting made redu-" Tonks glanced around.
Harry replied, "I am."
Tonks took up her small silver-blue handbag on a silver chain. "How about, we don't go looking for her, but if she shows up, I get to tell her to bugger off?"
"All right," he agreed.
Tonks hesitated departing. Finally she asked, "You couldn't shut Ginny up any other way?" She sounded doubtful, but fortunately not like she did when questioning a suspect. "It really didn't mean anything?"
"I couldn't think of anything else on the spot. And it didn't mean anything more than that I didn't expect she'd resist."
Tonks glared at him full on. "Did she?"
Harry shrugged yet again. "No. Not really."
Harry had considered finding his friends that evening, and instead said, "Where do your friends usually go?"
Tonks took them to a place where a vast space danced with colored lights but everyone sat on high stools around the shadowed fringe. Harry followed along the perimeter, flinching at the noise pummeling his head and making his heart vibrate but glad for the anonymity of the lighting.
Tonks leaned attractively over the bar to shout their order to the barman. Harry scanned the crowd and checked that his wand remained easy to reach. Tonks handed him a glowing red drink and clinked their plastic glasses together.
The drink tasted sickeningly of artificial cherries, and Harry pretended to sip it, not in the mood to mute his concentration, at least not by drinking this particular substance. Tonks insisted on dancing, but while they did so, Harry remained steadfastly off the floor where they would be the center of attention. The lights and the brain-penetrating noise blissfully let him forget where he was and what he needed to do. He must have relaxed his grip on Tonks as they danced because she suddenly slipped closer and they fitted together much better, turning there in the waves of sound and color.
Tonks ordered a second drink after finishing Harry's. When he suggested she slow down, she couldn't hear him even with him shouting directly in her ear. Once she had her drink, Harry tugged her away from the blasting curtain of sound and back into the recesses of the nightclub.
"What?" Tonks asked when they entered an area of cheaply black-painted walls and random thin curtains.
Harry tugged her drink away to take a sip of it--at least this one was clear--and said, "I was trying to suggest you slow down."
"It's my night off," she pointed out, not understanding.
The speed with which she had put down two and headed into a third implied she had taken on a regular habit of more.
Harry took another symbolic sip of her drink and kept it at his side, held by the lip. "I'll help you with this one."
She screwed her face up to complain, but it did not hold. She leaned against him, slipping a shoulder under his arm. Harry led the way further from the thrumming of the dance floor and around a corridor lined with curtained alcoves. Elegant feet with high heels stuck out from under one, shifting slowly. Tonks halted and backed up to pretend to trip over them.
The person let out a yelp and sat up, fighting with the curtain to do so. Other feet appeared, clad in dark men's shoes and pinstripe flared trousers.
Giggling, Tonks yanked Harry away. Her outfit and hair turned jet black, the better to blend in with the surroundings. She shoved Harry through an unlocked door and they stumbled into the stairwell, which held far more lounging bodies than expected.
No one moved. Harry at first assumed this was from surprise, but it was not. The figures sat or reclined on the stairs as if overcome by some kind of lethargy. A robed figure sitting halfway up the flight raised his head and peered at Harry, eyes blinking in wonderment. As though living in a thick soup, Justin Finch-Fletchly's lips moved, forming the word "Harry". Then he raised his arm, ever so slowly, and wiped his nose on his sleeve.
"Laudinasia, looks like," Tonks said, snapping Harry back from an acute sense of unreality.
"What?" Harry asked.
Tonks nudged the closest body with her foot, moving far flung robes off the stained floor. She walked around doing this, finally bending down to pick up a plastic baggy. This she held to the light filtering down from the floor above. "Red crystals," she said. She moved about, lifting heads this time.
"Recognize a few?" she asked Harry.
Harry nodded, noting several former students from Hogwarts.
She came back to Harry, and slipped the bag into her pocket.
"This party's a drag; let's go somewhere else," Tonks announced and led the way out of the stairwell. Harry followed, hurrying to keep up.
"Aren't you going to do anything . . . take them to St. Mungo's or something?"
Tonks did not slow down. "I don't want them getting any cures. I want their headaches splitting their heads open when I go around and interview them tomorrow."
They were off by Apparition to a quieter spot before Harry could ask more. "But what is that stuff?"
"Laudinasia is a crystallized potion making the rounds of the party set. The stuff with red crystals comes in from St. Petersburg, and that's usually made pretty well. The local stuff isn't brewed as well, and can have all sorts of awful side effects." She pulled out the packet and rolled it more carefully. "Looks like first timers since they were only splitting a single satchel of it. We'd like to get a line on the local brewers, since they are causing the most casualties, but the demand is created by the good imported stuff, so it's a problem too."
Harry, worried about his old schoolmates, asked, "Addictive?"
"Psychologically mostly." She clapped Harry on the shoulder. "You've been missing out being gone, Harry."
"Come on, I'm famished. Let's get some dinner. Somewhere nice."
Tonks provided grooming charms for both of them before she let Harry open the door to the Middle Inn. The waiter led them to a central table and remained just long enough to snap Tonks' napkin into her lap.
"So, things are getting tougher at the Ministry," Harry said, feeling left out, as well as digging for information.
"We're always understaffed. Are you coming back?"
Concerned who might be overhearing, Harry had no trouble saying, "I don't know."
She frowned, deepening the already noticeable lines of her face. Around them, dining room chatter ebbed and flowed, relaxing the mood. "Rodgers says he's now glad we're together because he thinks he can recruit you back through me."
"I need some time," Harry said, sipping his expensive fizzing water. A vision of Finch-Fletchly mouthing his name dogged at him. "I was surprised to see Justin among those in the stairway at the club."
Tonks shrugged. "Sometimes straights get pulled in. Especially when friends insist you can't get hurt and you don't want to get left out. Bones is about to launch an informational campaign about it." She scratched her ear, thoughtful. "Were any in the stairwell Muggles that you could tell?"
Harry thought back before shaking his head. There had been Muggles in the club, but not there on the stairs.
"Good. We've had reports the stuff is getting sold on the Muggle market too. That we really want to stop. It has magical properties and the Muggle authorities will be asking some serious questions once they get a hold of some."
"Serious questions of the Ministry of Magic?" Harry asked.
"Serious questions about how the stuff works. Bloody inconvenient having to Obliviate entire departments in secure Muggle government bureaus. They tend to ask questions about that too, unlike most Muggles who just shrug and write off everyone forgetting a whole day. Like they'll assume the calendars were all wrong or something. Muggle bureaucrats don't do that. They get more tenacious."
As the meal progressed and conversation fell off, Harry's mind began to fixate on his meeting Sunday. He had no idea how it would go, and expected he would have to give way to that other mode of thinking to best maximize the encounter, or perhaps even to survive it. He was lost in these musings while picking at his ice cream with a fork when a familiar voice jarred his attention away.
"The riffraff even in the nicest places is just unbelievable," Draco Malfoy sniffed.
Harry looked up. This Draco actually looked older than the alternative world Draco, which did not match most of the other schoolmates Harry had seen there.
Harry, taking Draco's put on attitude as just that, put his toe down on Tonks' foot before she could say anything. Before he could come up with a unperturbed rejoiner, his eye was caught by the vision in heavy black robes standing just behind and to the side of Draco. Pansy's belly bulged as much as Candide's did. Unlike Candide, who seemed to glow a bit, even through the discomfort, Pansy appeared hopelessly weighed down. She stood bent forward, hanging on Draco's hand. Make-up failed to mask her puffy eyes, which fixed on Harry with a curious but wary look.
Aware of the diners around them halting and turning, Harry stood up and gave a nod in Pansy's direction. Wanting to do the unexpected, Harry graciously said, "Mr. Malfoy, I think your wife looks quite ready to be home, with her feet up."
Oddly, Draco appeared to make a decision and relaxed into a grim, quieter attitude. "Come, Pansy," he said, leading her away by the hand.
Pansy put her head down and followed. Harry watched them depart, as did most of the restaurant.
Tonks picked up her drink and said between swigs, "Not exactly the happy couple."
* * *
Bleary-eyed, Harry returned home for second breakfast, glad when Snape gave him only a cursory looking over that could easily have been attracted by Harry's ruffled personal state.
Harry sniffled, wishing his head did not pound lightly and his ears did not buzz.
"Did you make things up to Tonks?" Candide asked.
Harry grunted noncommittally, taking great care to evenly coat his toast with marmalade. As nice a time as he and Tonks had had, things still felt unresolved. Maybe things just always felt that way.
Candide, working her breakfast with both hands, paused to add, "She's easily upset, it seems. Not self-confident."
"She is with magic," Harry said, not certain if he was defending her or just clarifying.
"I meant with relationships."
"Yeah," Harry agreed. "I don't know how to reassure her. What should I do?"
"It's not you, I don't think, Harry. But I'm not impartial."
Snape lowered the paper he was reading to glance between the two of them.
"You were saying?" Candide prompted him.
"I was just thinking that this was the same topic that I must submit to overhearing from my students."
"And you'll get more of it this evening, with Lupin and Harry's cousin coming for dinner."
Snape gave Harry a gaze of dismay that said, yet another thing I must bear, and lifted the paper to ignore them through the rest of breakfast.
Harry, bored just minutes after breakfast concluded, decided to take a run. He had not done so in months and once the idea took hold his limbs refused to remain sedentary.
The brisk air burned Harry's lungs, making him cough, but after stopping to clear them, he powered on, He ran in a single direction, limbs cycling, mind blissfully blank until he passed the gate where he had encountered Moody spying on him one night last autumn. Harry slowed, crunching gravel underfoot as he leaned on a gate post to stretch his legs. He did wish to avenge Moody, even as annoying as the old Auror's paranoia had grown in the end. Moody had been following someone else besides Harry, at the end. He had been watching out for Belinda too, and now there was no one to do that except Harry, who did not understand as much as Moody presumably did at the time. Maybe if the old Auror had trusted anyone, he would have told someone what he knew. Perhaps he had only ever really trusted Dumbledore.
Properly stretched, Harry ran on.
Lagging sooner than he had hoped, Harry pushed himself several times to go on, but he had lost too much capacity for athletic activity between prison and winter's dissuasion from venturing out. Coughing again, Harry stumbled away from the road along a muddy field path bordered on two sides by overgrown stone walls. When the car noise faded and the wind took over, he transformed and took flight for home, flapping slowly and relishing the air on all sides of him, hoping to be mistaken for a kite if his luck did not hold.
Back at home, Harry had at least shed his anxious energy, if not his mental boredom. He wandered to the library, thinking perhaps of pulling down one of his Auror books. Once there, he felt doing so would imply giving in. He instead perused the top shelf of far more interesting bindings, turning his head to read each title in turn, looking for any gems he might have missed the last time. He pulled each down and paged through them, pausing to study the etchings and woodcuts, which frequently contained something in the background, a little mouse in the corner or a little walled city on a hill.
Harry's attention was so caught by the muddled, arrow-filled diagrams in a book on hex deconstruction, that he did not notice Snape standing in the doorway until the other cleared his throat.
Harry said, "All the good books are gone."
Snape replied, "'Good' being a relative term in this instance."
Harry put that book back and took down the next. Like most of them, it had no index or table of contents, so it had to be perused to understand its scope.
"Looking for something in particular?" Snape asked.
Harry shrugged. "I'm just reading."
Snape dropped his voice. "Increasing temptation as well, I expect."
Harry read in peace for a page. Snape said, "Do you feel lacking, magically?"
"Do you mean, do I feel like someone who's been living on porridge and dry toast and just discovered a book on desserts?"
"Something of that nature."
"A little," Harry admitted. He shrugged helplessly. "I feel incomplete. I want something, but I don't know what it is."
"I think everyone experiences that at your age, Harry."
Harry looked up from the book, finger on an incantation for cursing someone with a parroting affliction. "Did you?"
"What did you do about it?" Harry asked, hopeful for a decent suggestion.
Snape's gaze drifted off. "I made rather a large number of serious mistakes."
"Oh," Harry said, returning to his book.
Voice harder, Snape said, "That makes me more useful to you, not less; I'll have you know."
Harry grinned. "Figures you'd say that." When Snape continued to ponder him, Harry said, "What?"
"Nothing. Let me know if you require anything of me."
The arrival of their guests broke the monotony of the house. Harry greeted his cousin and led her inside, Lupin trailing, brushing his hair back nervously. "I have to keep it an early evening," he said, sounding strangely false while apologizing.
Harry's curse sense was making his skin itch again, confirming that Lupin himself set him off. He resisted the urge to step backward rather than shake hands.
Candide, with a teasing glance at Snape, said, "Shall we send Severus in your place so you can stay later?"
Speaking softly, Lupin grinned weakly while saying, "No, that's all right."
Lupin said, "Minerva asks after you, Harry, and wanted me to insist that you stop by for a visit now and then." He smiled more as he added, "She doesn't trust Severus to pass on social invitations, I don't think."
"I'll do that, thanks," Harry said, instinctively pondering what useful information she may have that he could appear to innocently weasel out of her. She did sit on the Wizengamot. Harry shook off these thoughts and helped Winky hand out fruit juices all around. Pamela gazed curiously at the glass she had been handed, and suddenly said, "Where's your pet, Harry?"
"Up in her cage." Harry waved an Unlatch Spell in that direction and moments later his Chimrian came flapping over the rail before settling on the edge of an unlit lamp, claws ringing painfully as they scraped on the glass.
Harry plucked her off and put her on his shoulder and took a seat beside his cousin.
"Can I hold her?" Pamela asked.
"She eats strangers, you know," Candide warned her.
Kali gave a warning hiss just then in the direction of Pamela's outstretched hand. She intelligently pulled it back slowly, rather risk a quick movement.
Harry patted his pet on the head and she began cleaning her wing membranes by running the edge along her foot in between nibbling frenetically on them.
"Look at those teeth. She doesn't hurt herself doing that?" Pamela asked, leaning in closer than she really should. "Is that how she got those wounds?"
Harry took his pet off his shoulder and tugged on one wing to pull the black membrane taut. He no longer noticed the ragged scars even as much as they distorted the sheen of his pet's wings. She had been injured defending Snape from the demons Harry had let loose.
"No, that was something else," Harry replied. "She got in a fight with something nasty," he hedged, not wanting to explain, really, but knowing he had to say something. He found Snape's gauging gaze on him when he looked up.
"Did she win?"
"It was a draw," Harry said, clipping his speech in the hopes that she would drop the questions.
Pamela sat back with her arms crossed. "More mysterious magical stuff that isn't fit for Muggle ears I suppose."
"It isn't that you're a Muggle," Harry said, remembering those painful helpless hours while Snape slipped away from him. "I just don't feel like talking about it." In the end he had taken care of things himself, like he always needed to do. And probably always would, a notion that bolstered him for tomorrow.
Snape stood and fetched Harry's pet from him and held her on one bent arm. He stood beside Candide's chair, holding Kali down by stroking her back. Harry sensed he was watching him through his hair.
"Likes you well enough," Pamela lightly complained.
"You will have to let her drink your blood if you wish to make peace with her." Snape coolly stated.
"Oh," Pamela said, mouth holding an 'O' shape.
"There is no shortage of monsters in the wizarding world," Lupin said between sips of his drink, frowning a bit.
Harry observed Candide glance at each face around her in turn. "Shall we go to the table?" As she scooted forward to more easily lever out of her chair, she said, "If I were being honest, I would say, I don't care about anyone else, I'm hungry. Let's go eat."
Pamela laughed loudest at this and gave her a hand, since Snape's hands were full of Harry's pet, who had decided she did not want to fly off when urged to.
As toast with olive spread appeared on the table, Candide said to their guests, "You two are still very cute together. Any additional plans on that front?"
Harry thought this diving in a tad blunt, so he picked a side, saying, "I'm glad you don't start in on Tonks and me like that."
Snape's stern voice emerged from the shadowy head of the table where the hearth burned high behind him. "She had best not."
After a gap where she studied the slightly rusty wooden-handled knife by her plate, Pamela said, "No. No plans."
Candide shrugged, fully appearing to make this a casual conversation. "You seem well matched is all."
Lupin's grey gaze flicked to her, then to the truly disinterested Snape, before returning to the black smeared bread abandoned on his plate.
Into the silence that followed, Pamela said with pretend brightness, "Remus insists he's not the marrying type."
Harry watched Lupin's hairy, pointy-nailed fingers rotate the toast on his plate, and sensed the man bristling. To fill the gap, Harry said, "Severus insisted that too, but look where he is."
Candide turned that way, bit her lip and said, "He hasn't been entirely happy lately."
Harry rose immediately to defense. "He's adjusting all right." He and Snape shared a glance and Harry frowned lightly. He hoped Candide was being overly forthcoming solely to distract Lupin from what could be construed as a grilling.
"Where's your ladyfriend, Harry?" Pamela asked.
"You mean, why am I spared?" He paused while they chuckled. "Tonks is on duty. As usual." He took another square of toast. "As far as I can tell, married people want to make certain everyone is equally miserable and so try to sell it to everyone else."
"Kindly leave me out of this," Snape intoned, accepting a drink from the tray Winky sparkled in with. He swirled the liquid around in the bulbous glass a few circles and Harry knew he was going to say more from the way the muscles of his face tightened. "I honestly don't care what anyone else does. I don't care if your cousin feels out of sorts for lacking a ring . . ." He have a small gesture in her direction. "Nor that Remus feels unworthy, for reasons entirely outside his control, of giving one over."
Harry, for a second, was certain Lupin was going to stand up and storm out. But instead the air went out of him, and his fingers fidgeted more. In his best self-depreciating manner, he defensively said, "Easy for you to say."
"You think?" Snape said. "Really?"
Harry did not believe this the best tack, but part of him was relieved they would not play the earlier game all through dinner, but would instead get it settled quickly. Leave it to Snape to dispense with niceties.
Lupin stared at Snape before sitting back and tossing his napkin onto the table beside his plate. "I don't know," he breathed.
"If you are looking for pity, you are looking in the wrong place," Snape stated.
"I'm not looking for pity. I'm not looking for anything," Lupin said.
"Why not?" Candide asked.
"What?" Lupin uttered.
"Why not?" Candide began gesturing with her knife, but set it down. "Why aren't you looking for something. Isn't that the state everyone is supposed to be in?"
"I . . . I never thought of it quite like that." Lupin glanced around at them all and returned to hunching over his plate, which had the unfortunate effect of making it clear his spine bent a bit unusually. Pleading a bit, he came back with, "I'm not right for a husband, for anyone. Or fatherhood, or anything of the sort. It surprises me that anyone could think I was." He relaxed then and finally ate his toast.
Pamela leaned forward to partly face him, "If no one else cares, why do you?"
Lupin finally turned to her. "If they don't care, then they don't understand," he stated with finality.
"Well," Pamela said, voice unsteady. "As long as we've established that all of us are hopelessly daft, that's fine."
Lupin rolled his eyes and shook his head. He held his hands up. "Can you imagine these hands holding a child, taking care of a child. What if the child turns out like this?"
"Curses, in general, rarely pass along father to child," Snape stated.
"And how would you know?" Lupin returned.
"Copious reading. Minerva would be a better source of informed opinion on the matter. But again, no real concern of mine, so do as you wish."
The table fell silent aside from small fidgeting movements. Dinner sparkled in, a great crispy roast duck.
"Are house elves hard to get?" Pamela asked.
"It's complicated," Candide replied.
"Involves a creepy spell," Harry added, partly glad to change the topic.
Pamela paused holding a spoonful of potatoes staring across the table at Harry. "Creepy how?"
Harry tried to explain, "It involves . . . uh . . . magical bondage, er, something."
"Yuck," Pamela offered.
In a voice of dismay, Candide said, "Some wizard weddings do the same."
Pamela swallowed hard. "Really? Yours didn't, did it?"
"No," Snape and Candide replied together.
Kali choose that moment to stick her nose out of Snape's pocket and creep over the landscape of his robes toward his plate. Snape plucked her up by her fur and dangled her out to the side. "Your pet, Potter."
"Yeah," Harry said, pushing his chair out. "I'll take her upstairs." He stopped back at his plate for a slice of duck and nearly lost two fingers giving it over to his pet. Her teeth flashed in the firelight, seeming to lengthen before they were embedded in duck breast.
"Quite a pet," Pamela said with a hint of sarcasm.
Lupin said, "That's why wanting to marry something a hundred times as big and ten times as nasty makes no sense." He sounded victorious pulling out that argument.
"You're really that bad?"
Lupin dropped his assertiveness as fast as he had put it on. He returned to hulking over his plate and eating.
"Why don't you let me see for once and judge for myself?" Pamela demanded.
This deflated Lupin more. Harry hesitated in the doorway. He gave his pet a toss toward his room instead of escorting her. She flapped madly to cope with the weight of her meal, but gained altitude in time to make it up to the railing.
"I'd rather not," Lupin said, rather calmly.
Harry only saw it because he had not yet returned to his seat, but Candide tapped Snape on the shin with her toe. Harry settled back in at his place, hoping his pet did not decide to use his pillow as a dinner napkin. Snape put his utensils down and propped his clasped hands over his plate. "It could be safely arranged," he said in a bored tone.
Harry pretended interest in smearing an unwanted third piece of toast when Lupin's accusatory gaze made it around to him.
"Fine," Lupin mumbled, as if that won the argument.
Harry looked up and asked, "Fine what?"
"Just fine," he said, sounding fatigued.
Pamela contemplated the beaten old wooden handled fork they were using that evening. Despite a brutal shining by Winky, rust spots still showed on the tines. "Should I be serving food with something more like these, or plastic even?"
"There isn't much silver in your silverware," Lupin mumbled.
"But there's probably some. Why didn't you point that out? I tossed out all my silver jewelry, but I didn't think of this."
"It's not important," Lupin insisted. "I've learned to tolerate it. It happens frequently enough."
Pamela scrutinized Lupin beside her, giving a small huff of exasperation, but remaining silent.
Snape said, "It has been my observation that Remus cannot bear anyone making accommodation for him. Even when it is in everyone's best interest."
Softly, but with finality, Lupin said, "I said fine."
"Two weeks, Friday, then. I believe we have a date," Snape stated, in the manner of closing out a meeting. Candide suppressed a small smile.
* * *
With the distinctive chiming rustle of fine china, Harry scooped up his stolen goods and Disapparated for Belinda's flat. He had decided that showing off his silent transportation skills too much was an unnecessary risk. Belinda blinked at him from the couch where she sat curled up with a magazine. When she did start to move, she moved rapidly, dropping her reading on the floor and jumping to her feet.
Harry placed the china on the table and the pillow on a chair. "Good evening," he casually greeted her.
She put her hands on her hips, challenging him. Behind her, in the window, her owl fluffed itself and pecked at the side of his wing. "What are you doing here?"
"I have a meeting," he informed her.
"A meeting?" she echoed dully.
At that moment, Harry's Durumulna contact arrived, flanked by his two lackeys. He adjusted his mask and peered at Harry, ignoring Belinda. "You have the stuff." It was not a question.
Harry waved an inviting hand at his cache and reached to pick up the teapot.
"Leave it on the table." With a toss of his round shoulder, the man sent a lackey over to run a hex detection spell on each item.
The underling stood aside so his boss could study the pile. "This the stuff they asked for?"
The man nodded. "Pick it up, and let's go."
The lackey had to do as Harry had, and load his pockets with rattling teacups in order to comply. Another gesture from the masked wizard and the other lackey came forward, pulling a black sack from his pocket. He was not intending to help carry, but instead moved to put it over Harry's head.
"Your wand too."
Harry hesitated at that one, but assumed that he could escape from any situation, and so complied. He gave Belinda one last glance before letting himself be blinded. She stood stunned, even when he winked at her.
The hood pulled free of Harry's face and he glanced around a wood paneled room with no doors or windows. They had Apparated twice, then walked for many minutes, and somewhere along the line had lost the two lackeys. Harry studied the room, memorizing it for later, uncertain how they could have walked into it from elsewhere. His escort had already moved to a steep ladder leading to a hatch in the ceiling, the only visible exit. "Boss is this way," he said, sounding threatening.
Harry followed, feeling stiffness in his legs from his run as he climbed. They emerged near the ceiling of a modern industrial building and followed along a catwalk stretching the length of the building. Sunlight came through the skylights, but black cloth had been hung around the catwalk, obscuring the view. Harry could hear voices echoing, and a shout, a pounding like a hand on a table, and then a sharp hearty laugh.
As they walked, they approached closer to the noise. Harry's ears strained to follow what sounded like a card game. A whiff of pungent cigar odor drifted by.
The catwalk came to an end hanging out into space. The man stopped and waited, tossing a small ivory box in his hand. The goods Harry had collected were not visible, and Harry thought it best to hold off on his questions.
Time passed. Back along their path, from somewhere down on the floor of the building the distinctive sound of shuffling against solid wood drifted up. Suddenly, Harry noticed the catwalk now continued on in three directions. Still the man waited. The catwalk creaked and an elf with wiry hair-covered ears crept up and beckoned from the branch to the right. Harry's escort batted him on the shoulder and gestured for him to lead.
They reached an ordinary, heavy door, which the elf stood on tiptoe to open. With more long fingered beckoning, he led the way into a heavily decorated office lined with plush furniture. The scent of cigar smoke grew pervasive.
A minute passed before the wall at the far end jumped away, doubling the size of the room. Someone sat at a wide desk, feet up on the blotter. A female elf, dressed in a lacy red placemat, lounged on the corner of the desk. Her ears drooped with rows of gold hoops.
"Special delivery?" a voice asked in a light accent Harry could not identify.
"Insisted on an introduction in exchange for the goods," Harry's escort explained.
The feet slipped away and a short man wearing an oversized hat emerged from around the desk. His long pointed chin moved side to side as he talked.
"Well, the infamous Harry Potter pays us a visit." He put his cigar to his mouth and his jaw worked all the more.
Harry gave a deep nod. He did not trust himself to not ask questions if he spoke. The man snapped his fingers and Harry's escort scrambled to take a chair. Before Harry could turn back, the boss shouted in a slightly insane manner, "I said, take a seat!"
Harry did so, startled more than anything. The elf's red painted toes bounced at the end of her crossed legs. She grinned back at him mockingly. Harry looked away from the queer sight of her and studied his surroundings. The room contained a few mildly cursed things, but there were too many objects in the room to identify the cursed ones from where he sat.
The boss paced his perfectly creased trousers to his desk and picked up an issue of the Prophet. "My people tell me you want in. Give me the stuff, Ursie."
Harry blinked in confusion. But his escort tossed the boss the little ivory box, from which the pillow and each part of the tea set emerged, one at a time. "Take these down to our guest. Mr. Potter and I will have a little chat alone."
Harry's heavyset contact moved like a sprite to comply, gathering up the things on a tea tray and shuffling out, a vision of unlikely maid service.
After the door closed, the boss flipped his cigar around his mouth a full circuit and said, "Give me just one measly excuse not to kill you here on the spot, Potter."
Harry sat straighter and despite resisting, glanced around himself in quickening alarm. The deep maroon curtains and knickknack-filled shelves could harbor all sorts of things.
The boss waved his cigar, leaving smoke like spell trails from his fingers. "There are about a hundred ways to do it where you are there. No sense wondering what they all might be since you can't count them."
Harry sat back and forced himself to relax, just for show. "One reason only? Okay, how about you can't really afford to waste the opportunity?"
The boss snorted. "The opportunity to be hulled, you mean? By an inside job?"
Harry could honestly peer back in confusion about this. He had lost control already and needed to cease playing this as himself. He closed his eyes a second and felt for the shadows, dredged up the hunger that still lingered from losing so very many followers. Immediately, a sense of outrage and derision flowed into him. The room transformed before his eyes from a showpiece into an insultingly superficial trap.
"Look," Harry said, keeping a tight binding on the scornful tone wanting to get out. "I'm here to make an offer of my services. You can accept them or not. I'm still exploring potential opportunities. I have loyalty to no one right now and I may decide to just keep it that way. Your organization is certainly giving the Ministry a good run, so I thought I'd shop my services to you, see what my options may be."
The cigar bounced around again, shaking the ash from the end, which fell and disappeared as it struck the shag rug on the floor, revealing the room to be an illusion. Harry may not even know enough about this place to slip in via the Dark Plane, unless he departed via it, and marked the location.
The boss leaned back against his desk, which barely came up to his armpits. He turned the folded newspaper to better glance over it. "What do you think of one Rita Skeeter?"
Harry saw enormous hazard in this question. He worried that if he informed the man of his bitter feelings, he may be assigned to assassinate her. He instead saw a chance to bolster his dark credentials and replied, "She has an annoying habit of following me around."
"Potter's out of control, says adoptive father." The boss read off, clearly from an old edition. He pulled another over and flipped it around. "This same adoptive father . . . interesting vitae, himself. I wouldn't mind recruiting him . . ." He stared Harry down with intense eyes that gave Harry the sense that the only real thing in his surroundings was that pair of dark blue eyes. "How did he escape getting sent off prison? Every one of his colleagues got the shaft."
Harry felt on better ground arguing for his own corruption based on Snape's. "This time, or the previous time?"
The boss's lips curled momentarily. "Both, if you are so eager to tell me the story." His strange accent, mostly hidden, flared as he spoke this.
"Dumbledore staked his on reputation on Severus Snape's loyalty the first time. He was influential enough to keep him out of prison. The second time around, I've been defending him."
"Staking your reputation . . ." the boss taunted.
"I wasn't putting it to other use," Harry casually tossed out. "It was going to waste."
"So, how did you like prison?" came the next flatly conversational question.
"It was . . . informative," Harry said, making himself forget his distress and depression in projecting a thoroughly different outward memory of events. For a minute he could almost believe the experience had made him stronger. "Too much time to think, though," he complained.
The boss took a long, cloudy puff on his cigar and smashed it violently out on the pristine surface of the mahogany desk, adding the scent of burnt wood to the tobacco odor. The elf leaned over and waved the smoke away, removing the mar from the desk, which must be real, even if the floor was not.
A knock came on the door and Harry's escort entered and groveled his way to the middle of the rug. "I did as you instructed."
"Is our guest pleased?" the boss asked, sounding something far less than pleased himself.
He gave a toss of his hand, and the man jumped over to gesture rapidly that Harry should get up and follow him. The boss turned away, then back. "Take Potter down to our guest, why don't you. He'll be tickled to meet him."
Harry followed out of the room and walked backward down the catwalk a few steps. The door disappeared just after it closed, leaving the gangway swinging out over empty space. They took a different path back and halted at a ladder down that vanished into a black fog before it reached bottom.
Harry's escort insisted Harry lead. Harry turned around and, with some trepidation because he had to bend down and step blindly over the edge, finally got both hands and feet on the ladder.
They reached the floor and more branching black-cloth corridors, lit by hovering fairylights. Harry could hear the card game clearly now, and a more acrid cigar smoke stung his eyes. They emerged from the tunnel of cloth into a room with no apparent ceiling, but with lots of woodwork and a mirrored bar along one wall where another exotic elf patiently shined glasses. The tea set sat on the bar, clashing brightly with the wood and glass.
A feeble-looking, grey haired man tossed a card down with surprising authority, his partly closed hand pounding the table as he did so. "Ha!" he said. The other three much younger players had the usual generic Durumulna look to them as they scrutinized their full hands of cards.
Harry's escort chose a moment to step forward and interrupt. "Mr. McCurdy, the boss thought you'd like to meet . . ." He did not get a chance to finish.
Mr. McCurdy caught sight of Harry and stumbled out of his chair, still safely holding his fan of cards. "You better not be here to take me back!" the man growled at Harry, one eye popping out, long fingered wagging accusingly at Harry.
"No," Harry denied. "I had no such idea."
Mr. McCurdy went limp with relief. "Ach," he uttered, and showed his age as he slipped creakily back into his seat. "Yangzy get me a refill," he cried out in the direction of the bar. Then as he patted his chest, added, "I need something to recover from that shock."
He dedicated his attention to his cards long moments before turning back to Harry. "Nice to meet you, my boy. Just paying a social call, then? Do me a favor, tell my wife I'm being tortured horribly . . . argh!" he shouted as one of the others collected that trick.
The elf delivered his drink on a tiny silver platter. "Any of those little snacks left? Maybe Mr. Potter would like something?" He said all this without taking his eyes off his cards. When the play came around to him, he tossed off something small. "Pull up a chair, Mr. Potter. We'll deal you in."
Harry's escort shook his head. Harry said, "I don't know this game."
"That's because I invented it. I call it five-deck shooter."
"Four-deck," one of his tablemates corrected.
"It'll be five if we get him to play too," McCurdy pointed out knowingly, then laughed. "Ah, I haven't had such a fine time since . . . nineteen fifty two when my father dragged me out of the club by my ear and forced me down the aisle. "Your lay, Pitface. You're leading toward me, so you might as well just hand them all over now." He laughed heartily again, not a noise one would expect from such a sunken chested man.
Harry's escort rapped him painfully on the arm and nodded back the way they had come in. Harry said, "Nice meeting you all," before retreating with his escort into the smoke-hazy tunnel.
Harry withstood the black hood again, and expected to be back in Belinda's flat when it was tugged free, but instead, they stood in an overgrown lot strewn with abandoned cars sporting tail fins.
"Don't call us," his escort growled, tossing Harry's wand so that it clattered at the base of a flat tire with hazy white walls, the rusty wheel rim protruding viciously from the warped mass. He Disapparated away before Harry could fetch it up.
Harry checked his wand for damage and sighed. The sun wanly crept out from behind the clouds and slipped away again. Harry had no idea where he was, but at least it was warm with the wind so low. He walked a bit along the gravel, thinking. Having no real information, he came to no real conclusions and decided he should get home so Snape could get to Hogwarts.
Based on how much aim he needed at the end of his Apparition, Harry decided that he must have been a very long way from home, farther than London, for certain. He found Snape in the drawing room and closed the door when instructed to do so with a gesture.
"How did it go?"
"They don't trust me."
"Not a surprise," Snape smugly said, opening a small trunk to wave the contents of his desk into.
"They wouldn't mind recruiting you."
This made Snape pause. He lightly shook his head and snapped the trunk closed.
Harry pleasantly added, "If they end up trusting me, it will be because of you."
"Hm," Snape uttered. "I expect that won't be the only reason." He picked up his trunk and walked by Harry, pausing to say, "I assume you are on hold?"
"Yep. How'd you know?"
"Really, Potter. I've seen more people initiated into a far more demanding organization than this one probably has in total. Keep in mind most newcomers fail." He turned at the door to add, "Spectacularly, I might add. Although, a few would just slink away and disappear. The lucky ones I suppose."
Harry followed him to the dining room. "You've made your point."
Snape set his trunk on the table and took down the Floo Powder canister. "No, I don't think I have, but it will have to do." With a handful of grit clutched in one hand, he touched Harry fleetingly on the shoulder with his other before hefting the trunk. "Do be careful, and do keep me informed."
"Right," Harry said.